Maintaining Good Mental Health
Several years ago, I wrote an article on change and transition that began with the words, “The life of a priest means a life of change.” At the time, I never imagined the changes facing society today or considered the impact of a pandemic on priestly life and ministry. A change is an external event that might occur abruptly. The current crisis is not only sudden but comparable to falling into a bottomless pit. Will I ever reach solid ground? It feels hopeless.
Transition from crisis to stability is essential for health. Every priest should reflect on his psychological and spiritual process of adapting to change. To serve others, one must have a reservoir of strength, which comes from good self-care, and be disposed to the source of life (cf. Jn 4:14). After healing the sick and casting out demons, Jesus took time to pray (cf. Mk 1:32-37). The call to greater humility is apparent in these times when the most determined and zealous of priests are powerless apart from God.
At St. Luke Institute, we educate priests and religious in the benefits of resiliency for good mental health. Self-efficacy, solid relationships and hope prepare a person to take on crises of any sort. With the current disorienting crisis, the real enemy to conquer is stress, which can disable even the strongest individuals over time. Stress takes its toll on the immune system, making one more vulnerable to disease, including the novel coronavirus. Various resiliency resources are available (including those from St. Luke Institute: www.sliconnect.org/resiliency/). The following simple exercise of a daily orientation, written for clergy, is a great place to start.
With any change comes a host of decisions: What do I do today? How can I use my time? Should I wait until tomorrow? Taking time at the beginning of a day to orient oneself can contribute to feelings of stability and diminished stress. Some people find vacations and holiday times particularly stressful and disorienting, simply because there is no set schedule or agenda, or the pace is too slow or too fast. The following principles can help guide a daily orientation.
1. Self-Care Components are Necessary for Health
Self-care affects six key areas: physical health, emotional health, social support, ministerial environment, spiritual health and leisure. Every day I should briefly consider each dimension and whether I need to change something. For example, do I need to pay more attention to emotional health today? Perhaps I have had several depressing days and need to do an uplifting activity or speak with someone about my concerns. Perhaps I realize my spiritual health needs a boost, so I schedule a time to speak with a spiritual director.
2. A Familiar Routine Reduces Stress
Getting up at the same time, keeping a fixed prayer schedule, eating on a schedule and continued exercise and work all contribute to a sense of equilibrium. While it is tempting to sleep in or to eat whenever hungry, sticking to a routine is much healthier. I have found it helpful to post a daily schedule for myself.
3. Reducing Unproductive Thinking Decreases Stress
Many people engage in fruitless behaviors: excessive worry, projecting the future or trying to solve problems that cannot be solved in the present moment. Set a timer for 10 minutes and promise yourself to move onto another activity and cease an unproductive one when the timer rings. Another method is to promise oneself, when aware of a worrisome thought, to spend 10 minutes at a specific time later in the day — for example, 5 p.m. — to consider that worry.
4. Limiting Necessary, Difficult Activities Can Reduce Stress
Some problems cannot be avoided. Bills need to be paid. Obtaining information is necessary. One needs to know, for example, how to take appropriate precautions as information on the coronavirus develops. Deciding to spend 10 minutes a day reviewing a well-informed, official website is sensible. Watching the news on television or the Internet for extended periods of time is unhelpful.
5. More Contact with Friends Reduces Stress
Even introverts need a consistent source of interpersonal engagement. The precaution of maintaining physical distance has led some people to isolate at an unhealthy rate. Continuing to connect with others via phone, FaceTime or Skype is important. More significantly, one needs to evaluate the nature of each interpersonal contact. A priest may spend too much time listening as a form of ministry and not enough time engaging in conversations that provide mutual support.
6. Personal Fulfilment Lessens the Impact of Significant Stress
Significant stress can lead to burnout, but the effects of such stress are often mitigated when a person feels a sense of accomplishment. A parent caring for a sick child can endure tremendous stress. Studies have shown that priests who burn out are not those with heavier work schedules, but those who no longer feel a sense of their vocation.
A crisis that has led to church closures can also lead to despair among priests who do not take the time to renew their commitment to their vocation, discerning ways to help others and pray for others. They should recall early seminary days in which emptiness in prayer was an invitation to remain attentive to God, who was simply inviting a deeper experience of grace. Take time to reflect on your spiritual memorials — that is, moments in which you absolutely knew God was present in your ministry to others.
Remember Who You Are
Throughout the process of formation, seminarians are reminded that a priest is a man of communion, a spouse of the Church and a spiritual father. Each day that a priest feels as though he is falling down a bottomless pit his sense of priestly identity will become more and more unfamiliar. A daily orientation will help keep priests on the right path: healthy and priestly. By the end of the crisis — and all crises have an end — every priest who has begun each day with a humble prayer, orienting himself to God’s will for the day, will realize in a deeper way the precious nature of his vocation.
FATHER DAVID SONGY, a priest of the Capuchin Province of Mid-America and a clinical psychologist, is president of the St. Luke Institute, an international treatment and education center for priests and religious.