Feeling a bit ‘off’ this year and can’t quite put your finger on it? The sun is now shining, you can visit family and friends, and celebrate public liturgical services, so why are you not feeling so great? You think you should be back to normal as everything settles down.
For many of us, while life has turned in a positive direction, it may be much harder for our minds, bodies and spirits to adjust immediately to the new pace, as positive as it may be. This appears to be an extremely common current phenomenon, evident in my patients and those around me. The gravity of last year’s events is starting to hit many full force, emerging out of what has been an unhealthily prolonged period of operating in survival mode.
Think back to last year when our world was turned inside out and upside down by the threat of a deadly and contagious virus that caused international borders to close, and kept us confined in our homes for up to 23 hours a day. There were ever-changing, head-spinning restrictions to keep up with, and workplaces became increasingly more virtual as they adapted rapidly to this changed reality. Many families lost a lot of the practical supports they heavily relied on to keep the wheels turning. Many individuals experienced soul-crushing isolation, and for the first time in their lives, many suffered a steep decline in their mental wellbeing. As in health care, those working in pastoral care were challenged by the intense suffering of their flock, who were without the usual means of personal outreach that could support, heal and restore.
Grief was further complicated by families being separated from dying relatives, and funeral services being postponed or limited to the smallest numbers. Joy and celebration were put on hold, with happy events like weddings and baptisms interrupted. Access to churches and sacramental life was restricted, while other community activities could resume. Many lost their sources of income and, tragically, some lost their lives in despair. While many of us were able to adapt, survive and even see the silver linings in these difficult times, we cannot simply ignore the collective suffering and pain experienced. When we don’t process our emotions healthily and supress our challenging experiences, it can have an impact on our physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.
In addition to the COVID-19-related adjustment, the other elephant in the room is that of burnout. Interestingly, burnout has only been recently acknowledged as a medical reality (defined as an occupational phenomenon in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases in 2019), even though it is something I have ‘diagnosed’ in both myself and others long before this. While the ‘textbook definition’ includes feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job, and reduced professional efficacy, the reality of the experience, like a lot of things, is more complex and nuanced. Australian researchers have demonstrated a wider scope of mental and physical effects, including anxiety, stress, depressed mood, irritability, anger, withdrawal, sleep disturbances, reduced motivation, impaired concentration, memory issues, brain fog, muscle aches, headaches and nausea, just to name a few.
Burnout has been known to be a very common reality pre-COVID-19, and one that ‘helping professionals’ such as clergy, healthcare workers and teachers are very prone to experiencing. Add in the pressure-cooker COVID-19 effect and burnout levels are now very prevalent in the community, with recent surveys showing that more than 70 per cent of workers today are suffering from burnout. It is vital to address burnout as it is associated with high absenteeism, negative economic effects, poor physical health (such as cardiovascular disease) and high mental-health burden. It also has a negative impact on those we minister to, as well as family, friends and co-workers.
The good news is that there are ways to address COVID-19-related adjustment and burnout symptoms. There are fundamental pillars to maintaining good health that should be adhered to, as basic as they may seem. These include adequate rest (including maintaining regular sleeping hours), attention to nutrition and hydration (which provide the building blocks for our ‘happy’ brain hormones), and regular physical and recreation activities (which have natural anti-anxiety and anti-depressive effects).
From a psychological perspective, it is essential to allow yourself time to readjust to the many changes we have experienced, and to go slowly to help prevent ‘re-entry anxiety’. As well as adjusting expectations, practising self-compassion and having healthy work boundaries are key burnout-prevention measures. The comparison trap is worth being aware of—just because Fr John down the road has mastered online ministries and is getting thousands of YouTube hits, it does not mean that you are failing in your ministry. We all have different, but equally important roles in being the Body of Christ. Come to know your ‘warning signs’ for burnout, which may be individual to you—for instance, experiencing ‘compassion fatigue’ in dealing with others. ‘Warning signs’ left unchecked and unaddressed could in the long term turn into a mental health crisis.
Addressing adjustment and burnout can be complex to address, as there may also be personal factors such as personality attributes and learnt unhealthy behaviours, as well as external factors such as challenging workplace and interpersonal dynamics. Professional psychological therapy can greatly assist with addressing these complicated issues. Psychological therapies, like other medical therapies, continue to improve, and with time it is possible to find the right healthcare practitioner to meet your needs. It can be beneficial to find healthcare practitioners who understand your spiritual beliefs. Mental health is something we all experience by virtue of having a brain. Just as you would get medical advice on your physical health, give yourself permission to get medical advice on your mental health. Remember that there is strength in vulnerability, and asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Having a regular general practitioner is highly recommended. Your GP can help by referring you to the most appropriate services, and can help to keep you healthy overall.
Last but not least, we have prayer and spiritual guidance. In the paschal mysteries, we have a beautiful and timely reminder of a God of love who suffers with us and for us. We are not alone in this trial, and while it is easy and natural for us to feel spiritually abandoned in our challenges, we are gifted with an enduring hope. Grace and blessings still flow into the perceived darkness, and in time we will feel God’s love and warmth again.
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC)16 August 2022
Christian Bergmann12 August 2022