It started with general anxiety. Then panic attacks. Then deep, debilitating depression. But I’m an equal opportunity nut job – I’ve also flirted with bitterness, resentment, and rage.
Far cry from the love/joy/peace triad, right?
At some point we’ve all been there, in that dark place where emotion strangles good sense and overthrows our equilibrium. As followers of Jesus, we know this isn’t the abundant life to which we’ve been called. Those who trust him are supposed to be “like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 7:8)
Um – yes, please! But how do we get there when circumstances are inescapable and our hearts are churning out oppressive, consuming emotions?
I’m not a psychologist or counselor, but I’ve been around this block a few times. Here’s one thing I’ve learned: At the root of every unhealthy emotion is a lie pulling me away from the truth. Truth is both shield and sword in this ugly war, and if we want freedom, we need to learn how to wield our weapons.
Here are some strategies I’ve discovered to help me do just that.
“He must become greater; I must become less.”
My lowest moments usually revolve around myself—my pride, my fear, my shame, my disappointment. In those times Mahatma Ghandi’s words echo with truth: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
During a heartbreaking time in my life, I began to pray, “God, don’t let my suffering go to waste. If I have to go through it, I want You to use it.” I wasn’t being admirable, I’d just read enough Elisabeth Elliot to know self-pity wasn’t the answer.
I started writing my prayers and journaling the lessons I was learning. If I met someone going through a similar hardship, I sent a card of encouragement with some of the thoughts and Scripture I’d recorded in my journal. I prayed for more people, baked cookies for neighbors, sent care packages to long-distance friends.
Each time I turned my thoughts toward others, I gained distance from myself. And a little distance was exactly what I needed to recognize the lies for what they were.
I wasn’t alone. Hope was not lost. God hadn’t abandoned me. I knew this to be true for the people I served, and through that service I gained faith to believe it for myself.
You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
The phrase “walk it off” traditionally alludes to flaring tempers, but it’s solid advice for anyone in emotional distress. When I was recovering from a season of severe panic attacks, exercise became my natural sedative.
I recall one evening in particular, when the panic struck while peeling potatoes for dinner. My children played quietly in the next room, unaware of my turmoil, but my husband recognized it the moment he walked through the front door.
“I have to go out,” I said, bypassing a greeting.
“Go.” He didn’t ask for an explanation. Despite the cold drizzle and fading daylight, he knew I needed to walk it off.
The upside to walking in a storm is no one can tell whether your cheeks are wet from tears or raindrops. I speed-walked for about a mile, praying as I went. Eventually the tension eased, my head began to clear.
I stopped in a cemetery, prayed a while longer, and then started home. As I walked, I looked down at my shoes against the pavement and imagined Jesus’ sandaled feet beside mine. It was one of the most intimate spiritual moments I’ve known.
God designed our bodies with an incredible capacity to sooth itself through motion. Exercise often feels like the last thing I want to do in a moment of crisis, but it never fails to provide a reprieve or – even better – a calmer spirit.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
Imagine you’re in that weary place I described in my last post. You lay down and say, “God, just let me die. I’d rather die than face this struggle any longer.”
An angel of God comes to you. Does he pull you to your feet and give you a shove forward? Reprimand your defeatism? Imbue you with supernatural strength to continue the journey?
You obey, accepting the bread and water he offers, then lay down once more. He comes to you again. “Arise and eat. You need strength for the road ahead.” More bread, more water. You feel the stirrings of strength, and soon you’re upright, pressing on. Not giving up.
Perhaps you recognize this story from the life of Elijah the prophet. God addressed Elijah’s physical needs in the midst of his emotional crisis, before addressing the emotions themselves. I never appreciated the wisdom in this until I encountered chronic anxiety and depression. Yes, I needed counseling, and perhaps I would have benefited from medication, but without a doubt one of my greatest needs was simply to refuel.
I was tired, burned out. I’d been juggling too many balls and wearing too many hats, and I hadn’t been taking care of my body in the process. I needed more sleep. Fewer commitments. Less sugar. I needed to eliminate the foods and activities that were draining my body and replace them with things that promoted life and peace.
I changed my routine, defined my limitations, and learned to say no – even to wonderful opportunities. Exercise became a preventative measure, not just an emergency stand-by. And food…well, that was the hardest part. My go-to “comfort foods” were emotionally satisfying but physically destructive. I had to make some tough changes.
I’m still re-training my taste buds, but more importantly I’m re-training my mind. We humans are spirit and body, and while we walk this earth those pieces of ourselves are intertwined. Knowing this has helped me recognize that many of my out-of-control emotions stem from physical depletion. When I refuel my body, it’s easier to pray, easier to think. Easier to get up and continue my journey.
What methods have you learned for battling unhealthy emotions?
How do you think truth and falsehood play into this struggle?