Step by step: Psychology and the Spirit in COVID-19 - Catholic Courier
A woman prays at a church in Bilbao, Spain, May 11, 2020, as parts of Spain relax restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. A woman prays at a church in Bilbao, Spain, May 11, 2020, as parts of Spain relax restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CNS photo by Vincent West, Reuters)

Step by step: Psychology and the Spirit in COVID-19

Among the most difficult challenges in navigating the pandemic have been uncertainty and change over which we seem to have little control.

From a novel and confounding virus to sudden shifts or loss in work, and from relative independence to stay-at-home with all the family, many are still trying to get accustomed to the new normal even as the world is gradually reopening to a newer new normal!

Uncertainty and change can have significant effects on our emotional and spiritual lives. They can trigger a host of emotions, including anxiety, frustration, loss and fear. They can disrupt the cadence of our spiritual practice, too, as our usual means of fellowship and worship are out of reach.

There are steps we can take to foster strong, resilient emotional and spiritual health. One of these is to understand the nature of our emotions, for example, fear, and how to handle potential problems.

James Coupe, clinical director at St. John Vianney Center in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, and a clinical psychologist in private practice said, “The purpose of fear is to keep us safe. We would naturally expect to experience fear in a pandemic. To understand our fear, try to have ways to think about our situation that is appropriate for the situation.

“Get as much information from credible sources about how the virus works, the way we might be more or less at risk for getting infected. Listen to a trusted source. You’ll feel more empowered.”

Sadness and loss are understandable, too. But, said Coupe, “keep an eye on the intensity. See that it is in line with reality, that it’s not lasting all day or influencing our ability to get our work done, interact with our family.”

Physical and mental space can help family members manage emotional flare-ups.

Warmer weather offers opportunities to exercise, which has a mental health benefit.

“Looking for ways to get outside is a good way to create mental space,” Coupe said. “Exercise is greatly important for managing our emotions.”

Coupe said, “When our emotions get too elevated, we need to remove ourselves from the heightened emotions. Pick up a prayer book, something to get your mind off the emotion of the moment. Then, of course, talk and work through your problems.”

Talking is important with children and teens, too, as is allowing them to ask questions. And parents don’t have to have all the answers.

Pediatric specialist Dr. Pat Fosarelli, author of “How to Talk to Children and Teens about COVID-19,” said, “Parents have a lot of difficulty saying, ‘I don’t know,’ when they feel they should know. This is a novel virus; nobody knows. It’s OK.”

“For a young child, comfort them,” said Fosarelli. “Other kids, they’ll ask the questions. ‘If God is loving, and God is omnipotent, why doesn’t God just fix this? Make it go away?'”

Children feel fear, too, and have questions stemming from it.

Fosarelli, also associate dean of instruction at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, said, “There had been some clergy from other traditions that have said this is God’s way of warning the world. That’s really scary for kids. I don’t pretend to know God’s mind. But we know that God loves us and cares for us.”

The sense of God’s love can be disrupted as our lives undergo ongoing upheaval and face continued uncertainties with the world reopening. So, too, can the regular rhythm of the spiritual practices we used to enjoy. Keeping connections, however, can help.

Becky Van Ness, director of the certificate in spiritual direction at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota, said, “In Christian spirituality, we are ‘already not yet’ of the kingdom. We’re adapting, we’re connecting. We actually can be more connected with family members than we have before. God is all about relation.”

The requirement to stay-at-home can also foster a sense of spirituality of place.

“There is a Benedictine charism of stability of place,” said Van Ness. “Even though community in place is online, something is happening that gives a rootedness, connections with other people. When we go forth, we will have a new appreciation for place. And I hope that we’ll keep gratitude alive.”

For those having difficulty with the emotional toll resulting from the pandemic, Coupe said, “There’s no need to wait to get help. Residential facilities are open, and if someone is developing a substance problem, they have access to a rehab facility.

“There are a lot of options via telehealth, and licensed mental health professionals are listed at and the American Psychological Association. Also, the St. John Vianney Center has a COVID-19 resource page on its website at”

For some, this time of self-isolation and social distancing might have led to discernment.

Coupe said, “(During the pandemic) our perspectives have shifted, perhaps permanently, perhaps temporarily. This can help people find a vocational call. Take some time to discern what the next move is. Don’t do it compulsively, and not from emotion. From intellect, talking to friends, taking it to prayer. It’s healthy to move toward something that gives you more purpose.”

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(Pratt’s website is

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