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Part 5: Managing Stress and Anxiety During Difficult Times

This is Part 5 in an ongoing series of Managing Stress and Anxiety During Difficult Times.

By Rev. Thomas E. Konopka, LCSW

As we all are chomping at the bit for our lives to open up, we are faced with the reality of change. No one likes change, but change is a reality. We have control of the how.  Remember the Serenity Prayer from Part 4. The Transtheoretical Model (also called the Stages of Change Model), developed by Prochaska and DiClemente in the late 1970s, can give us a framework to work with. They developed this approach which has six stages. This model is an evidence-based approach in addictions work, but it is a handy tool for us all as we face the significant changes in how we will live in the post PAUSE world. One thing to be aware of is that we don’t go through stages in a straight line. Like any stage theory, we need to look at this in a more circular way. As we go through this change, we can encounter the first five stages in one day and still be ambivalent if the change is even necessary. The stages are: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination.

I look at the stages in the following way:

1.     I don’t need to make any changes in my life.

2.     Maybe I need to change; maybe not.

3.     I need to make a change, but I don’t know how.

4.     Here is how I will make the change.

5.     Here is how I will maintain the change.

6.     What is the next thing I need to change?

Everything I am reading seems to point to the reality that as we move ahead, we will not go back to our world as we knew it. We are forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and we need to learn how to live with it. The virus is not going away, but we can accept changes to keep us safer. Now, some of you may not agree or see the need to change anything, but this model allows for that ambivalence about why we need to change. Using our old maps, we don’t need to change. However, we need to ask ourselves what the reason is why we are ambivalent. Is it because of fear? Is it because of stubbornness? Is it because of my approach that no one can tell me what to do? Whatever our thinking, we need to look at it and ask ourselves just how reasonable it is. I may not like wearing a mask in public because it steams up my glasses, but doing it keeps someone else safe if I am asymptomatic. For me, this is the Christian view. My needs come after the needs of others. Now, this is how I confront my ambivalence. One process called “decisional balancing,” which can be explored via google. Decisional balancing is a cost/benefit analysis of changing or not changing. This is a process to help you understand the need to accept these changes, not because they are imposed, but because they make sense.

The motivation for change needs to come from within. Any change imposed from outside is often ignored because of fear or stubbornness. Even if the change is imposed, each of us needs to work through our resistance or ambivalence to these changes. For example, you may not be able to sit in “your spot” in church due to social distancing, but the question will be: Is the seat important or does the fact we are able to worship together hold more weight? We will see changes in how we worship, how we shop, how we recreate, how we go to the movies, concerts, etc.  If we spend all our time in the first stage, we will be very unhappy and angry people and our resistance or refusal to change has the capability to harm ourselves and another. This could be one of underlying dynamics we see in so many protests in the country. 

As we process through the stages and deal with our ambivalence, we can move toward accepting and embracing the change. One reason for this ambivalence, in my opinion, goes back to an idea I proposed in the first part of these articles: We do not have the map to negotiate through this pandemic so we revert to the old map to deal with our uncertainty and our anxiety. Unfortunately, this keeps us trapped in the first stage. Why change, I got what I wanted. In our current situation, there is a cost to not changing or developing a new map. Our health and the health of others may be the motivation we need to draw a new map and move ourselves ahead to stage four.

As Christians, this is the process of conversion that Jesus calls us to. To be stubborn and resist Christ’s call traps us into never deepening our spiritual life.  All of the saints wrote about a journey of change and transformation that lasted a lifetime. They all needed to allow themselves to move through these stages many times to grow in holiness and in faith. At this critical juncture in our history, may we allow the Holy Spirit to motivate us to make the changes asked of us that are for the good of all.

Father Thomas Konopka, L.C.S.W., is the director and a therapist on the staff of the diocesan Consultation Center. He is also Pastor of St. Mary's Church, Clinton Heights, and sacramental minister for the parish of St. John the Evangelist and St. Joseph, Rensselaer.



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