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I have been wondering how we can continue to facilitate honest and helpful conversation around mental health and wellbeing – especially during this time of COVID-19. Back in May, we wrapped up an eight-week course – “The Sanctuary Course” – where we had opportunity each week to engage mental health and our faith. To grow. To learn. To become more aware of how important these conversations and spaces are for our church.

We have been learning a lot from Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. What is Sanctuary?

“Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries is a Christian non-profit that equips the Church to support mental health and wellbeing.

We believe that the Church plays a central role in promoting mental wellness and mental health recovery. We provide training, tools, and resources to equip the Church to be a sanctuary for all people, at all stages of their mental wellness journeys.”

This is the kind of church we long to be – a sanctuary for all people – at all stages of their mental wellness journeys.

To continue – and widen – this conversation, I want to start a new blog series on engaging mental health. Engaging our mental health is particularly vital during this time of COVID-19. Through this blog series – I will be leaning heavily on others and sharing and summarizing resources I am discovering as I continue this journey with you.

Today I want to share from a recent podcast by Sanctuary with Kate Middleton. Kate is a Psychologist, Pastor and Director of UK-based faith and mental health organization, The Mind and Soul Foundation.

Kate shares some core practices she is discovering for maintaining mental wellness through the ups and downs of COVID-19. As I listened, they resonated and were a great help.

To begin – Kate shares a bit of a reality check that really resonates with me. Early on – way back in early March (remember then?) – it was easier to treat the COVID-19 lockdown like an acute crisis. There were adjustments to be made to our lives – almost overnight. It was easy to stay very busy. It was a whole new reality! . . .  and – even at times had a sort of excitement to it.

But . . . it’s not new anymore. Four months in and we have lost a lot of the structure and stability of our lives. Our routines. Our productivity. The predictableness of our lives. All of it impacted.

The loss of these things pushes everyone’s stress level up, Kate shares. Our brains use routine and rhythm and predictability as a way to keep stress low. With all of that disrupted – with all the changes – our minds now have a lot more work to do and our stress levels are all up. (Notice how many of us are so often “on edge” and a bit more prickly at times!). Kate shares three practices that are helping to sustain her in this time.

The first is managing these elevated levels of stress – recognizing the peaks in our stress and being intentional to manage the elevated levels of stress in our lives. One way is to build back routine into our lives. Finding new patterns. New rhythms. Earlier I wrote about the opportunity for “RESET” in our lives – finding new structures and rhythms that might sustain us through this.

Rhythms of rest. Rhythms of exercise. Rhythms of down time. Rhythms of work. Establishing boundaries between work and rest – so incredibly difficult right now. Especially for those working at home.

A lot of us are exhausted. I know I am. And I know I’m not alone.

Some days it can feel like – “shouldn’t this be easier by now? I mean – it’s been four months already!” We’re in phase 3 of BC’s Restart Plan. Yet – notice. We are “returning” to some activities – we are even calling it a “new normal.” But – there is nothing “normal” about it.

We are experiencing a lot of what Psychologists call dissonance. We are doing things that should be normal – but are actually encountering things that are out of place, that aren’t normal, things that can trigger a negative emotional response because they don’t fit.

It’s “normal” to go shopping – but not normal to wear a mask. Or figure out which way you should be walking down the aisle. Or staring at the cashier through panels of plexiglass.

It’s “normal” to go out to eat – but not normal to see every other table empty and your server wearing a mask and keeping their distance from you.

It’s “normal” to go for a walk in the neighbourhood – but not normal to see everyone quickly move to the other side of the street to avoid getting close to you.

The dissonance we are all experiencing can create a spike in anxiety and trigger spikes in stress. We need to be proactive more than ever – about how we do rest, how we relax, how we manage our time and find ways to refuel and refresh. How are you managing the spike in stress in your life?

A second practice is learning to embrace our difficult emotions. This is a hard season right now. It’s helpful for us to admit that. To be compassionate towards ourselves and allow ourselves to say – even out loud – “This is really tough right now!”

We need to give ourselves space to embrace and to process our anxiety, our fears, our anger, our frustration, our losses, the loss of our routines and freedoms. The grief we are carrying around in our hearts is real and we need to allow ourselves to grieve.

A third practice is striving to find good things. This season of life has taken away some very core things we need to flourish as human beings – things like connection with others (I miss the face-to-face connection with our church family so deeply!); connection with people we love; physical touch; being outdoors.

How do we find joy, find good things, find connection? It’s a real challenge right now – and we need to practice finding these good things we need to flourish and be well.

Let me ask you – how are YOU finding the good things in the midst of the hard things we are living through right now?

I hope that this blog series will help us continue healthy, real conversations and explorations around mental health and wellbeing.

Be blessed,

Pastor Tim