Moving From Stress to Gratitude in the Covid-19 Era by Meditating on the Psalms
For the last several months, much of the world has been living in a season of uncertainty, filled with stress, anxiety, isolation, ambiguity, and unpredictability. In fact, there seems to be no real indication that the instability of the present moment will improve in the near future on either a local, regional, national, or global level. In the midst of this chaos, social distancing, “stay-at-home” orders, and mandatory face masks are common practice, with the long-term impact— biologically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually—of these preventative efforts currently unknown.
Yet, psychological data on the COVID-19 era are beginning to emerge, and many people are reluctantly settling into the reality that some combination of social distancing and mask-wearing is here to stay in this season of life. Building upon this “new normal,” I will briefly explore a psychological and spiritual perspective on the COVID-19 era, making the case that a “both/and” strategy is necessary for psychological and spiritual health. In other words, although widespread suffering abounds, and Christians need to accept the inevitability of pain in a fallen, broken world, we can also cultivate gratitude and thankfulness during this tumultuous time, deepening our ability to fellowship with God in the process. Drawing upon the Psalms, I suggest that these biblical writers astutely captured this “both/and” approach to life, recognizing there are unavoidable seasons of “orientation,” “disorientation,” and “new orientation” in our relationship with God (Brueggemann, 1984). This practice can benefit 21st century Christians as we try to find a clear path forward for psychological and spiritual growth.
Ultimately, to maintain psychological and spiritual well-being in this unpredictable period, Christians can implement a two-step strategy. We can cry out to God amid the pain and “disorientation” and also maintain a sense of hope and gratitude that a “new orientation” is just around the corner. After all, God is active and present to offer His providential care from moment to moment. To practice this approach—offering a “complaint” and then a “praise” to God (Brueggemann, 1984)—meditating on the Psalms can help Christians to gain much-needed insight into the problem of, and solution to, human suffering on this side of heaven. To begin, I briefly review the emerging data on the psychology of COVID-19, then present the newest research on gratitude, before concluding with a survey of the “three seasons” of life in the Psalms and a two-step meditative strategy for embracing the “both/and” of the COVID-19 era.
A Psychological Understanding of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Although research is only beginning to emerge on the psychology of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent study published in the American Psychologist employed a sample of roughly 1,500 U.S. adults to better understand the impact that state-ordered social distancing and “stay- at-home” preventative efforts have had on psychological functioning (Luchetti et al., 2020). Over the course of three time periods—January-February, March, and April—participants were assessed with a loneliness measure, with results revealing no change in self-reported loneliness across time (Luchetti et al., 2020). This finding suggests that people may be discovering other ways, beyond traditional in-person interpersonal exchanges,
to meet key social and emotional needs. However, additional research is needed to assess the long-term impact of social distancing and “stay-at-home” orders on psycho- logical health.
More recently, the American Psychological Association (APA) conducted a survey on stress and COVID-19 among approximately 3,000 U.S. adults (APA, 2020). Results revealed that roughly four out of five participants stated the pandemic itself is “a significant source of stress,” and almost two out of three indicated that the “government response” is “a significant source of stress”
(APA, 2020). Moreover, nearly three out of four parents reported worrying about their children during the COVID-19 pandemic, with just over half stating they have observed an increase in “acting out” behavior among their children during the COVID-19 era (APA, 2020). Although U.S. adults may not necessarily be reporting an increase in loneliness per se, COVID-19-related stress appears to be a fairly ubiquitous experience.
Gratitude as a Response to the Stress of COVID-19
In response to COVID-19-related stress, gratitude may be an often-overlooked cognitive-affective state for managing the “ups” and “downs” of this season of uncertainty (Emmons & Stern, 2013). Succinctly defined as the ability to “affirm the good and credit others with bringing it about” (Emmons, 2016, p. 13), gratitude may serve a useful, protective purpose in the COVID-19 era—especially as a coping skill for proactively countering the stress, discouragement, powerlessness, and hopelessness that can organically emanate from this latency period. By actively searching for, and locating, the good in life, we may be able to appreciate and savor what we have, even during social distancing, “stay-at-home” orders, and an over- abundance of online-only social interactions.
Loving-kindness Meditation to Cultivate Gratitude
One particular gratitude intervention, loving-kindness meditation, involves repeating certain phrases or mantras to oneself (e.g., “May I be free from suffering”), and then others (e.g., “May my co-worker be at ease”), which helps practitioners cultivate positive emotions (Neff & Germer, 2018). A study among nearly 150 working adults found that participation in a six-session loving-kindness intervention group led to an improvement in a variety of emotions, such as gratitude (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008). To date, loving-kindness meditation appears to be growing in popularity in the psychology literature, with a wide variety of mental health benefits (Zeng, Chiu, Wang, Oei, & Leung, 2015). Still, because loving-kindness meditation emanates from the Buddhist tradition, some Christians may prefer to turn to their own religious heritage for a meditative strategy to cultivate gratitude in the COVID-19 era. In the context of the “three seasons” of the Psalms, kataphatic (i.e., using words and images) Christian meditation may hold promise as a Christian-sensitive alternative.
A Christian Understanding of the COVID-19 Pandemic
In the Psalms, the various writers typically elucidated three seasons of life, including seasons of “orientation,” “disorientation,” and “new orientation” (Brueggemann, 1984), which have relevance for Christians in the 21st century COVID-19 era. With seasons of “orientation,” we are often in a state of well-being, recognizing God’s reliability and blessings, whereas seasons of “disorientation” point to the suffering, hardship, and adversity that naturally emanate from living in a fallen world (Brueggemann, 1984). Finally, commonly following the disorienting seasons of despair, hurt, and hopelessness, seasons of “new orientation” reflect a state of gratitude, thanksgiving, and newfound hope, recognizing that God has dually delivered us from our suffering and fulfilled His promises with the blessings that only He can offer (Brueggemann, 1984). Although by no means a predict- able, stable sequence, we often move from seasons of “orientation” to “disorientation” to “new orientation,” culminating with a deeper awareness of, and trust in, God’s infinitely benevolent, wise, and powerful providential care.
Within the COVID-19 era, we certainly seem to be in a season of “disorientation,” wherein the psalmists would often lament to God with a few key steps, which may be helpful for contemporary Christians as we struggle to make sense of the suffering before us and God’s avail- ability and plan amid the turmoil. With the first step of lament, there is some sort of “plea” or “complaint,” which includes a request to God, the reason for the lament, and transparent and authentic language that reflects the psalmist’s anguish and pain. This is followed by “praise” on the part of the psalmist, captured in the recognition that he has been heard by God, trusts God, and is grateful to God (Brueggemann, 1984). In other words, the bridge from “complaint” to “praise” may involve a cathartic expression of the pain, followed by gratitude and an awareness of God’s providential care, regardless of the outcome (Brueggemann, 1984).
As one of many examples, Psalm 13 (NIV) aptly captures these two significant steps—a “complaint,” followed by a “praise” (Brueggemann, 1984):
How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have over- come him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the LORD’s praise, for he has been good to me.
Here, we can easily see the psalmist’s “complaint”
(e.g., “How long…”), then his “praise” (e.g., “I trust in your unfailing love,” “I will sing the LORD’s praise”), which offer us a meditative model for lamenting to God in the COVID-19 era.
Moving from Stress and “Disorientation” to Gratitude and “New Orientation”
For Christians within the COVID-19 pandemic, meditating on the Psalms can help us to move from stress and “disorientation” to gratitude and “new orientation” by: a) crying out to God from moment to moment, especially in this season of stress, uncertainty, and widespread suf- fering, and b) praising and thanking Him, anticipating that we are inevitably moving toward a season of “new orientation,” wherein we will be positively surprised by His blessings. In fact, recent research has revealed that Christian meditation may hold promise as a psycho- logical intervention for a range of struggles, including depression, anxiety, stress, intolerance of uncertainty, and repetitive negative thinking (i.e., rumination and worry) (Knabb, Frederick, & Cumming, 2017; Knabb & Vazquez, 2018; Knabb et al., 2020).
What follows, then, is a two-step approach to meditating on the Psalms during the COVID-19 period, which will help Christians to: a) lament to God to authentically express the stress and pain of the present moment to Him, and b) cultivate gratitude, thanksgiving, and praise to God, even when a resolution to our current predicament remains unclear. In doing so, we are prioritizing our relationships with God and turning to Him in response to social distancing, “stay-at-home” orders, online-only social interactions, and financial instability that may be contributing to an increase in daily stress.
A Two-step Strategy for Meditating on the Psalms: Cultivating a “Both/And” Approach
to the Stress of COVID-19
To begin, find a quiet location free from distractions. Sit up straight in a supportive chair with your palms facing upward in your lap as an expression of your willingness to yield to God’s providential care in the here-and-now. For the next 20 minutes, you will be engaging in a two- step strategy, lamenting to God, and then thanking Him (adapted from Brueggemann, 1984). As much as possible, try to slowly and deliberately adhere to the following steps, discontinuing the practice if you experience significant discomfort or distress.
- Select a psalm of lament (e.g., Psalm 13) that includes both a “complaint” and “praise,” slowly reading through the passage to immerse yourself in the biblical author’s experience.
- Apply the psalm to your current situation, selecting one verse that captures your “complaint” to God, as well as one that reflects your gratitude to God.
- Slowly meditate on the chosen pas- sage, such as, “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and have sorrow in my heart each day?” In this very moment, express your pain to God, sharing your experience of the COVID-19 pandemic with Him. Repeat the passage over and over again, slowly absorbing it as you sink deeper and deeper into your heartfelt cry to God.
- Give thanks. Slowly meditate on the chosen passage, such as, “I trust in your unfailing love.” In the here-and-now, thank God for His perfect, loving presence, even as your future seems uncertain. Repeat the passage with confidence, knowing that God will hear your lament and respond to your need.
- Whenever another thought, feeling, or sensation arises, simply acknowledge it, and then return to the two-step meditative strategy—lamenting to God, and then giving thanks to Him.
- Carry this two-step process with you throughout the day, presenting your pain to God, and then expressing gratitude to Him for His active, loving presence during the chaos of COVID-19.
Although the future is uncertain, as Christians we can trust that a new season is just around the corner. As we continue to move from one season to the next, God is walking with us, loving us, and offering His perfect presence. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Christian meditation may hold promise as a suitable alternative to loving-kindness meditation, helping us express our pain to Him and then cultivating gratitude as a positive cognitive-affective state that deepens our trust along the way. Whether expressed in the psalms of the Old Testament or the COVID-19 era of the 21st century, a Christian strategy to “affirm the good and credit others with bringing it about” (Emmons, 2016, p. 13) inevitably points us back to God’s will to “rejoice always, pray continually, [and] give thanks in all circumstances…” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
This article originally appeared in Christian Counseling Today, Vol. 24 No. 3. Christian Counseling Today is the flagship publication of the American Association of Christian Counselors. To learn more about the AACC, click here.
Joshua Knabb, PSY.D., ABPP, is a board- certified clinical psychologist, specializing in individual and couples therapy. Residing in Southern California with his wife and two children, Dr. Knabb is an associate professor of psychology at California Baptist University (CBU), serving as
Director of the Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology Program in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. In addition to his work as an educator and psychotherapist, Dr. Knabb’s writings and research have been published in a variety of academic journals and textbooks over the last decade. His research interests include marriage and the family, psychological assessment, the psychology of religion, attachment theory, mindfulness-based therapies, and contemplative Christianity.
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