Anxious and isolated: insights from religion on how to cope

By Tim Maby

Social isolation is a new and often disconcerting experience during the coronavirus pandemic. But in religious traditions, solitude, isolation and silence are chosen ways of life.

In a video-conference briefing organised the Religion Media Centre, faith leaders, academics and counsellors shared insights into the lessons religion can offer on how to best cope with being anxious and alone.

It was suggested that the pandemic challenged our basic need for certainty and control, and religion had an important role to play in helping people cope now and when this was all over, especially if the lockdown were long lasting. But there is a danger that faith communities were “missing in action”, with buildings closed and rituals abandoned. Instead, they needed to offer wisdom, support and hope.

The panel of speakers agreed that no one should doubt the enormity of the change we were living through and the difficulties posed to mental health by the sudden change, isolation and fear.

Dr Miguel Farias, an experimental psychologist from Coventry University, is researching how people are coping and what factors will allow people to recover afterwards.

It’s very clear, he says, that the current situation is unleashing tremendous levels of uncertainty: “We’ve been raised to think we have extraordinary control over the environment and our lives and something like this is telling us quite the opposite. And how to deal with this level of societal uncertainty is extraordinarily difficult.”

He says research had shown that the longer we are in quarantine, the more difficult we will find it to cope, and the longer-lasting the consequences will be. His research team is trying to discover what will determine how someone comes out of this well or badly. Religious groups will play a very important role in dealing with what is now called “post-traumatic growth”.

Father Christopher Jamison, the abbot president of the English Benedictine Congregation, has joined with the independent production company CTVC, to run the Alone Together website, whose aim is to offer the insights of the monastic tradition on living in isolation.

The important feature, he says, is to create a structure to the day. “How to shape my shapeless day” in the monastic way, with its three different time zones, morning, noon and evening. This, he says, avoids the day feeling monotonous. In its first week the largest age group following the site were aged 25 to 35.

Fr Jamison recommends making a space in your home to become “a sacred corner”. He believes it is especially helpful if children are in the household, and one can delineate the sacred space with images, candles or incense, making it a more potent experience when made beautiful.

He says that the offering of emotional, mental and spiritual advice and support to people during the pandemic is the new and much-needed work of faith leaders.

“There is a danger of the faith communities being seen as missing in action, because all the places of worship are closed” and so they need to get out and make new offers “in body, mind and spirit”.

He says people should be prepared to approach the isolation of the lockdown as if they were novice monks. They are entering “a new way of life which has its challenges”, but it can be fruitful as well. You don’t have to replicate your normal day: do something different instead.

Alison Green, digital director at CTVC, describes how they have been going through all the details of a monk’s day and how it is broken down into important things to do, such as some manual labour, even if it is simply cutting up vegetables for a meal. The element of going to meet people from the outside world every day in the guest house has been replaced with a conversation on Zoom.

The Alone Together initiative is working closely with Danny Curtin, chief executive of the Catholic website Million Minutes, to encourage young people in the church. They are using their network to start online discussions about how to approach the lockdown, applying skills of the monastic to encourage and train young people in meditation and mindfulness in silence.

Much of the Rev Richard Carter’s work with homeless people and refugees has stopped because his church, St Martins-in-the-Fields in central London, has shut for the first time in centuries. He finds that people are realising other things in their lives now, like the freshness of the air in a beautiful springtime. They are finding it possible to be “present” with each other in a different way such as through the internet or videos, which has led them to share quite deep things about themselves, resulting in a stronger sense of community, “rather than the loss or the alienation that we were expecting”.

Formerly chaplain to the Melanesian Brotherhood in the Solomon Islands, he has now set up the Nazareth Community to discover stillness in the city. He believes that in spite of the struggles, we are learning new lessons about being “present with one another”.

Mark Wagner is founder of the app Soultime, which offers Christian meditation. He says so many working people feel lost without the structure of daily commuting to work. For himself, he tries to continue with a self-imposed daily order involving keeping time at the beginning and end of the day to think and review.

He says that one thing particularly helpful to young people visiting his website is to teach them to develop a habit of recording their moods in depth and keeping a register on the site. Soultime then makes a coloured graph of their experience, which helps them gain a perspective of their anxieties. He says most people use the app first thing in the morning and last thing at night and the most traffic is for anxiety, stress and sleeping disorders.

The app uses the idea of sponsors, where users can input information about five friends to contact for support if needed. Using the mood-tracker and artificial intelligence, the app can identify when people are having a genuinely bad day, prompting a supportive phone call from a friend, while giving no personal details away.

Through analysing the data, it has become clear that as lockdown started, people were quite cheery and then the mood went down. Last weekend it went up but is now down again.

Saba Zaman, a producer at CTVC, points out that Muslims always set aside time to pray five times a day, so that the sense of isolation and time alone is part and parcel of the faith. But Ramadan, which starts shortly, is usually a time for community gathering, prayers and food, and this year will be very different.

She says she is looking forward to being able to spend time in contemplation during Ramadan, as it will allow time away from the daily work schedule to give an opportunity to reignite a relationship with God.

But Muslims are concerned about people who are alone through Ramadan: how they will manage and how they will cope with mental health issues when it is over? She says Ramadan is a time for charity and charitable effort, and Muslims are rethinking what this means when faced with needs caused by the coronavirus.

The panellists were asked whether secular meditation was stealing the clothes of ancient religious tradition.

Christopher Jamieson: “The best of religion will always reflect the best of humanity. We should be flattered if religious practices are valid outside a religious context. It shows the depth of the religious tradition that you can have a humanistic expression of them. What they lack is the element of grace and the notion of God’s gift to strengthen us because human nature is very frail.”

Miguel Farias: “We’ve been running studies on how the endorphin system is stimulated by rituals and we’ve been able to compare religious versus secular rituals, some of which were created in the lab. We’ve also gone to Sunday assemblies [secular gatherings with songs, an address and meditation] and the kind of level of social bonding you get from that ritual is identical to the one you get in a Christian ritual. What we know from the neuroscience of meditation is that the kind of activation in the brain is different according to the meditation technique. The only common aspect is that they all involve areas of the brain that regulate our awareness of our body, our breath.”

Mark Wagner: “The main difference is that Christian meditation is essentially mediation on — it’s not just meditation. It’s always about looking, gazing with the eyes of the heart, savouring truth, savouring the goodness of God. It’s about somebody and its relational.”

Richard Carter: “I think one of the wonderful things about silence is that it can become a place where different traditions meet, because often we are divided by the words we use, which become almost like defence mechanisms. And when you become more silent and more still and more meditative, then you begin to become more attentive, listen more and become more observant of the truth that other people are imparting. Silence helps overcome differences between people of different perspectives.”

Saba Zaman: “It’s really interesting to consider the physical and metaphysical – or heart in connection. Within the whole Islamic tradition,  the idea is when Muslims pray, you’re meditating  –  you’re having a direct conversation with God which connects directly to the heart.”