I am convinced that we, as Americans, have a coping problem. We don’t cope well with the difficult situations, problems, and feelings we have. We simply don’t want to feel them because they are unpleasant and painful. Ask yourself, What do you do when you are hurt, depressed, sad, angry, guilty, or ashamed? For me, my typical coping mechanism is to withdraw, eat sweets, and have some screen time.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to speak at the Honey Lake Clinic, a Christian rehab center outside Tallahassee, Florida. While I presented information, I also had the opportunity to witness another speaker perform an exercise with the patients that simply allowed them to feel the pain they’ve been feeling for many years. The patients were given instructions and had support and encouragement of the other patients. Counselors were available throughout their stay to help process the difficult emotions as well. This exercise, I believe, helped to lead some through the path of healing. They were encouraged to feel the pain felt from the past and to express it in a safe environment. These individuals were people who had deep emotions, but found ways to cope with them in life that led to more hurts and problems (i.e. cutting, drugs, alcohol, control, etc.).
I’ve also witnessed in clients (and in myself) the inherent desire to avoid difficult problems and emotions. Grief. Sorrow. Rejection. Sadness. Fear. Guilt. Shame. Anger. All of these emotions are painful to work through because they are emotions that bring us down or they may involve past memories we try to forget. So how do we deal with such painful and difficult emotions?
The two most common way we deal with things are avoidance (ignoring) and mood regulation.
- Avoidance: If we can avoid the bad feelings by being busy with work or other tasks, we will be successful in getting through the day without feeling those hard feelings. In today’s screen obsessed society, the increase in avoidance through social media, video gaming, binge watching, and web surfing allow us to keep busy doing well, nothing. At times, sleeping can be one of the most used ways to avoid difficult feelings and people, too! Drinking or using substances can be a means to dull the feelings or distract oneself as well. In doing any or all of these things, our minds and attention are occupied so we don’t have to think about the bad memories, painful feelings, or difficult people. And they work! At least temporarily or until the consequences of such activities become too great.
- Mood Regulation: Mood regulation is simply this – regulating our moods. If we are feeling down, sad, anxious, or simply in a lull, we will do something or ingest something that makes us feel momentarily better. Typically, this is done to get a high when one is feeling low or perhaps even bored. Mood Regulation can occur through outside chemicals such as medications, drugs or alcohol, or through increasing the body’s natural chemicals (endorphins) in both healthy and harmful ways. Healthy activities like running and helping people naturally produce the “feel good” chemicals inside of us, whereas harmful activities such as viewing pornography and cutting may enable people to feel better. These are more harmful due to the accompanying guilt or shame that typically leaves one in a worse state, adding to the “need” to regulate mood or distract from the guilt or shame (can turn into a cycle).
Avoiding or regulating our moods only provide temporary relief. Often, a failure to deal with the difficult emotions result in frequent personal or relational crises and enslavement to substances or activities. Failure to deal with them will always mean that the individual will remain emotionally stunted in maturity. The ability to mature emotionally is specifically tied into the ability to work through the difficult emotions.
So what do we need to do with those unpleasant feelings? We need to “deal with the real and feel so we can heal.” Emotional pain ought to be taken as serious as physical pain. When either physical or emotional pain are ignored, there can be serious consequences. After surgery, we often have to go through the pain of healing and the pain of physical therapy to get to the place where we want to be. As we go through emotional healing, the path is similar. We often have to go through the pain in order to get to a better tomorrow. How do we go through the pain? We allow it, feel it, and work to understand it. We ask questions of ourselves, others, and God to understand and process past and feelings differently. We question our perspective of past events and understand events through a biblical and mature lens (often our feelings are determined by how we perceive events, which may not reflect reality). We often cannot go through this process alone and we may need outside help with this. Like Physical Therapy, Counseling Therapy may be needed to move forward.
Most people choose not to work through this pain due to two reasons: 1) as discussed, it’s painful and difficult, and 2) fear. We are afraid that if we begin to feel the pain, we will not be able to come back to “normal” and we will get worse, spinning off into “crazyland.” In order to prevent this, we often need support and a plan to work through the emotions and experiences of the past. First, have healthy outlets for your emotions, such as art, exercise, writing, music, poetry, sports, etc. Be ready to use these methods as tools to express feelings, cope, and bring the God-given “feel good” bodily chemicals into action. Second, develop a plan with a friend or counselor how you will work through the emotions as they get more intense. Can you call them if needed? De-escalating the emotions, instead of turning to a former coping mechanism (like drugs, cutting, entertainment, etc.), will be necessary. Third, understand that this is not all or nothing. You can allow yourself to feel the difficult feelings for a time (say 15- 30 minutes), but you can also close yourself off to those feelings until you’re ready to process again. You can actually give yourself permission to feel and permission to stop.
Lastly, and yet most important, understand that your relationship with Christ during this time is important. He will lead you, guide you, and draw near to you as you draw near to Him. If we are to “seek Him first” and “cast our cares on him”, we need to place Christ at the center of our coping or recovery. Instead of coping with a substance or activity, it’s important to “Cope with Christ.” I know a man who struggles with addictions who uses the slogan, “Turn to the cross, not the crutch.” When feeling down, tempted, guilty, ashamed, turn to our Loving Savior where there is no condemnation (Rom 8:1), only love. Interact with Him. Ask Him difficult questions. Read Scriptures or books on suffering, and most of all, grow in trust with Him. The more we understand our own feelings and dedicate our time, focus, and trust in seeking Him, the more we grow and heal.
By continuously using the coping mechanisms we use, we are essentially creating a lifestyle of self-sufficiency apart from Christ. Yet as we turn to Him in faith continuously, we are developing a new lifestyle by faith. Emotions have been given by God not to ignore, bury, or take control, but to feel, process, and express. When we do so wisely, we better reflect the Image of God in us. My friends, “Deal with the real and feel to heal.” and do this with help and with Christ.