Elizabeth is a 40-year-old woman currently going through a divorce after her husband left her for another woman. Elizabeth has been married for 15 years. She has been actively involved in her church community. Elizabeth is feeling depressed and guilty for not being able to make her marriage work. She has thoughts of being a failure and that people in her community are going to judge her. Elizabeth starts to struggle to get out of bed and leave the house. She feels overwhelmed at times with her emotions. She feels she cannot stop thinking about her perceived failure and what will happen in her future.
Intense emotions can toss us around and make us act differently. Sometimes we feel as if our emotions are controlling us. Like Elizabeth, maybe we feel stuck in a loop of thoughts that paralyze us. But such emotions do not last forever. Eventually they subside.
Emotions are natural. In fact, God created us to have emotions for a reason. Emotions act like signals. They can communicate to us, mask another emotion, or motivate us to take action. Elizabeth’s emotions may have been communicating to her that she needs to pay attention to her core beliefs, or that her depression is covering up another emotion of guilt. To work through this, Elizabeth can reflect on whether her sense of guilt fits the facts of her situation. Was the divorce completely Elizabeth’s choice? Guilt can fit the facts when one’s actions do not match up with one’s values.
Focusing on her thoughts can also lead Elizabeth to more sad thoughts and unhealthy behaviors, such as isolation. How she acts out her emotions is important. By isolating herself and not leaving the house, she is acting out her emotions in a way that is not helpful for her. If Elizabeth can work to act in opposition to her urges to isolate, she then can take steps to challenge her emotions. We might have urges that come with our strong emotions, but we do not have to act on the urges. We can just notice that the urges are there.
In the Bible, Job struggled with depression as he experienced great loss. The more Job thought about his painful circumstances, the more likely it was that he would feel sad and depressed, which could have led to isolation or self-harming behaviors. Yet his depression may have signaled Job to pay attention to God and listen to God’s counsel. How Job behaved in response to his depression is what is important. He cried out to God rather than hurting himself or others.
It is also important to remember that we are not our emotions. Just because Elizabeth is feeling depressed does not mean that she is a depressed person. We all have thousands of thoughts each day. What can happen over time is that our brains get wired to think in certain ways. My brain can learn to filter in anxious or self-critical thoughts and filter out positive and uplifting thoughts (or vice versa). These thoughts then influence how I feel. If I am thinking more about how I am not good enough, then I am more likely to feel insecure or sad. Therefore, the more Elizabeth dwells in her thoughts, the more likely she is to wire her brain to think sad and guilty thoughts.
Emotional regulation is learning ways to manage and cope with emotions. We cannot erase our emotions, but we can learn to lower their intensity so they become more manageable, which can help us not to act out our emotions in unhelpful ways.
It is important to learn what triggers our emotions so that we can learn to manage the triggers. I’ve noticed that big emotional triggers often are people or situations outside our control. Learning to accept a situation as it is in the moment without trying to change it can help alleviate the intensity of emotions as well as prevent rumination. This strategy is called radical acceptance. One of the goals of radical acceptance is to keep emotional pain from turning into suffering. This means giving situations over to God, trusting that God has a plan for everything and that God generally does not leave us without any resources to manage our emotions and circumstances. Once we learn to let go of things outside our control, we are free to choose paths we can control. Other people’s emotions and behaviors, for example, are outside our control. Our reactions, choices, and behaviors are inside our control. Radical acceptance does not mean that we approve or condone situations, but that we acknowledge what is in God’s hands.
Here are some tools and strategies to help with managing emotions:
- We can trust in God. If we worry about the future or constantly ask “what if,” we can give these thoughts to God and trust in God’s promises. Jeremiah 29:11 talks about God’s plans to give God’s people hope and a future.
- We can pray to God. In prayer we can voice our worries, share our deepest thoughts, and express our sadness. God listens. Remember, God created emotions and feelings.
- We can be mindful in how we choose to act on our emotions. We can STOP: Stop, Take a break from what we are doing, Observe how we are feeling on the inside and outside and what is going on in our environment, then Proceed mindfully (choosing how we want to act and respond). We can do this by praying, by asking what Jesus would do, and by weighing the long- and short-term consequences of our urges.
- We can take moments of reflection and study God’s Word to us. Some questions to consider might be: What triggers your emotions? What barriers are there to “letting go and letting God”? What is one thing you can do differently to help manage your emotions? How can I trust God with emotions and situations I do not understand?
If managing emotions is something you struggle with, do not hesitate to reach out to a counselor—ideally a Christian counselor. A counselor can help you learn tools and strategies for coping in healthy ways. Life is worth living even if there is pain in it, when God is our hope.
- Have you ever experienced (or do you know of someone who has experienced) emotional struggles similar to Elizabeth’s? Can you describe your experiences?
- Would you say that Christianity affirms the goodness of our emotions? Why or why not?
- What are some things that might trigger your emotions? How might recognizing those triggers help you?
- What will you take away from this article about managing your emotions?
About the Author
Rebecca Bates is from Ontario, Canada. She holds a master’s degree in social work and is a practicing therapist and a professor at Loyalist College, where she teaches psychology and sociology courses.