This week’s art project is more of a community health project, and certainly not something I would have guessed a few months ago that I’d be taking on. I’m sewing cotton fabric masks, right now for people working in healthcare facilities and my essential coworkers. I’m sure at some point very soon, I’ll be painting more again, but right now, this is more important. I’ve definitely learned some new tricks on efficient production, and I feel like I’ll have that honed in even more by the weekend. This may not be art to most people, but sewing is creating, and I’ve certainly learned some new-to-me creative techniques this week.
Feel all the feelings and then let them go.
I am a naturally empathetic person. It’s one of my INFJ personality type superpowers. Empathy makes me a great listener, a good friend, a compassionate leader, a solid writer, a generous giver…
But it’s also my kryptonite. I internalize the mood of the space I’m in, the people I’m around, the news I hear and read. All of it goes straight to my heart. When I’m not my healthiest spiritually and/or mentally, I have to create buffers between my soul and the ”real world,” or I can’t watch the news without crying over how broken the world is – how the pandemic is affecting the entire world – how heavy the losses are for families affected by the crime and poverty being reported – how divisive and angry our politics are – how even the good news stories are often colored with shades of loss or hardship, even if it’s a story about a loss restored.
It’s all so oppressive that joy, even the deep and abiding joy of living in Christ, is hard to muster. I tend to retreat, to build so many buffers that I can hide in comfort food and craft projects. Sometimes I volunteer too much as a way to compensate and keep my brain too busy with stuff to do to be able to focus on how I feel. It’s a really dumb way to handle all the feels, but it typically happens on such a subconscious level that I don’t realize it until I’ve taken on too much work to handle and there are abandoned crochet projects all over the house (and the house is a wreck).
As I grow, I get better at spotting the cycle. I’m certainly better at recognizing the moments when I’m feeling all the feelings, and even knowing when they’re not mine.
But the letting go part, that’s not my strong suit.
I’m great at planning my way out of mess and thinking I can generate just the right to-do list that will fix all my perceived problems. Overweight and out of shape? Yes, but if I follow this diet plan and this exercise regimen EXACTLY, then I’ll be at my goal weight and peak physical conditioning in less than a year. Behind on my quest to be a “real author?” Absolutely, but if I write this many minutes per day on each writing project, and I send out this many book proposals in the next two weeks, THEN I’ll be on my way.
It’s all malarkey. Not that I shouldn’t make plans and set goals, but I am still learning the lesson that I’m setting insane goal paces as a way to avoid some of my feelings. The irony, of course, is that setting unattainable goal deadlines sets me up to disappoint myself and kick off a whole new wave of uncomfortable disappointed feelings.
I’ve been aiming instead to feel the feeling for a bit, and then I have to move on. Stress is definitely the hardest for me to let go of, and it’s probably the most indicative of where my faith is in any given moment. It’s also been the most common feeling of the last few weeks.
I’m not a super strict schedule person, because even when I try to be strict, something blows up and pushes all my meticulous plans aside. To go from a loose schedule to something new entirely with a child home from school who’s definitely used to a routine has turned my brain onto permanent “AAAAGGGHHHH” mode. It’s not that I have a lot more to do – it’s the same amount of work, although I’m doing more consistent housekeeping and actually clearing out some clutter – but there’s a lot more emotional and mental and spiritual work to do to keep my empathy superpower from killing me. The unknown and nebulous menace of dealing with a pandemic is also adding a layer of stress that’s harder to identify.
I know that I feel stress less acutely when I am consistently spending time praying and studying the Bible. I use a prayer app to keep track of requests, and it also has a meditation and preparation prompt that uses Bible verses and devotional writings to direct your time before you begin praying through requests. Some days, that’s as far as I can get (and very honestly, some days I don’t make it to an intentional time of prayer, and it’s just scattered bits when I remember something or start to lose my mind). On my best days, I also spend time reading the Bible and taking notes. You don’t have to take notes to study the Bible, but it’s very much how my brain processes information, so I hand write notes when I’m really studying. It’s also good to just read without the expectation that I need to do anything deeper.
I know that my diet and water intake will also have a huge effect on how I handle stress, though that knowledge doesn’t always translate into the wisdom of action. Same story with exercise. That’s on my list to work on this week.
You may wonder why I started with prayer and Bible study as the best stress buster in my toolbox and spent so much space talking about it. There are two reasons I think it’s the most effective tool. First, focusing on God in a way that seeks to learn more about his character and channels my prayers towards others shifts my focus entirely away from myself and towards an infinitely larger subject. My worries fade in comparison, and I lose the weight of my stress in that time of meditation. Second, meditation is a highly recommended cognitive behavioral therapy tool because it teaches us to calm our thoughts and shift our perspectives and thought patterns. Prayer and Bible study is my mode of meditation.
Managing stress and learning how to let go if it is one huge feeling we can practice the “feel the feelings and then let them go” mantra on that we’re all experiencing to some degree right now. Sometimes just managing stress makes managing other emotions much easier. When that’s not enough, how do we let go of other feelings that want to linger, like anger and sadness? I don’t have a perfect answer, but I have model.
Feel the feeling. Acknowledge that it’s there and know that whatever the feeling is, it’s okay to experience it and that you are not defined by your emotions. If you’re in a safe and appropriate setting, vent it. Cry or shake your fist with rage or write down what you’re feeling. If you’re not in a space that’s conducive to expressing the feeling, note it, and let yourself come back to it when you can. Realize that expressing emotion doesn’t mean you have a free pass to act any way you want without consequence, so think before you act. If an emotion is so strong that you’re not going to behave well, give yourself some time and space.
Once you acknowledge the feeling, examine it. What exactly was the emotion? What triggered it? How did you react? What foundational beliefs affected your reaction? Was your reaction appropriate to the situation? What information would change the intensity level of the emotion you experienced? How could you react differently if you have the same experience again?
Most of the time, taking a moment to examine the feeling lets us take a step back and look more impartially at the situation, and we find that our emotional reaction is less intense than it was in the heat of the moment. Downgrading the emotional intensity is a big step in letting go.
If you’ve examined the emotion, and nothing seems to take away the edge, decide if it’s a situation you can change or not. If you can, make some changes. If you can’t change the situation, you need to change your thought pattern. Whenever the lingering negative feeling pops up, actively counter it with a positive thought or action. For example, with depression, I tend to get cranky when I’m not in healthy condition. When I realize the anger is creeping up, I try to actively avoid confrontations that I know will end ugly, and I remind myself to breathe slowly and remember that whatever it is, it will be okay. Find something to redirect in a positive way the negative thought/emotion pattern that works for you. It takes a lot of practice, and it feels a little silly when you first start, but it’s a game changer.
Even with this model and a ton of head knowledge about what I need to put into action to let go of things and feel better, sometimes I suck great wind. But good mental health is a marathon, not a sprint. As long as you’re moving forward, or at least not wallowing too long when you fall down, you’re building the endurance you need to be healthy.
If you have children or work with them, you’ve probably said, “Use your words, not your hands.” But today, we are throwing caution to the wind and assuming you’re mature enough to use your hands AND your words.
Today, my home state decided the wisest course of action to slow the pandemic spread is to cancel in-person classes at school for the rest of the semester. My tiny human was a little nuts the first week that school was paused for three weeks. Now that we know we’ll continue the semester with assignments from home, she was a lot nuts trying to go to bed tonight.
To be honest, so was I. Everything in our schedule is upside down. I’m a naturally empathetic person, and I can’t even peek at social media right now where everyone’s dogs and cats and family updates usually perk me up – right now it’s full of people experiencing the same loss I’m experiencing, and I can feel too deeply the lost senior year antics, the teachers missing their students and working like crazy to figure out how to make the next two months happen virtually, the students who miss their teachers and classrooms and friends and routines, all the people out of work, and all the people working through incredibly stressful conditions at essential jobs. It’s a lot, and it’s hard for everyone right now, no matter what your situation.
If you have been feeling a little too much of the worry of the moment (or had a mild panic attack like I did tonight), here are three things you need to know right now:
- It’s okay to feel the feelings. It’s okay to mourn for the loss of your daily routine and to freak out a little bit at all the things that are different right now, including the inexplicable hoarding of toilet paper and ground beef.
- Once you feel the feelings, tell them the truth. Let the crazy thoughts and emotions and anxiety parade by, but don’t get out there and march with them. Wave as they pass by. And as they march down the parade route, imagine yourself as the cheesy news anchor announcing the float, telling you bizarre facts like how many coffee beans were used in the construction of the float, and then sending it off with a great one-liner like, “But I know no matter how many coffee beans they used to make that float, it’s still not running the show.” That’s a silly example, but a real thought exercise might sound like this in your head: “Here comes stress. Stress likes to show off with flashy things like anger and overstimulation, but stress is going to keep walking right on by. I’m going to wave goodbye to stress because it needs to finish the parade route, and I can control my actions.” You aren’t your feelings. You aren’t your thoughts, though that’s a tempting line of thought, given Descartes’s catchy, “I think, therefore I am,” philosophy. You are a created child of God, which leads to…
- Philippians 4:6-7: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”
Slow down, breathe for a moment, and get some perspective. I don’t care what this pandemic or anything else going on in your life holds for you, God will hold you together through it. These verses are a blueprint for how to survive.
So I just listed three things that obviously had nothing to do with the introduction. That was a bonus list. The three things I started out to write for today is a set of mental health exercises to use if you’re feeling the stress a little too much right now, and they all use your hand as a cue.
First, trace your hand on a piece of paper. I’ll wait. No, I’m not kidding. Any paper will do. I only had fluorescent green handy (see what I did there…), so that’s what I’m using (as well as subpar phone photography).
Our first exercise is just breathing. Breathe in through your nose while you count to five, hold it for a count of five, and breathe out through your mouth while you count to five. Use the hand print as a visual to focus your thoughts onto just your breathing. If you want more meditative visualization, remember that we are God-breathed creations, the Bible is described as God-breathed, and every breath is life. We are breathing in God’s provision, savoring it for a moment, and then letting go of everything that’s past. Try this for a few breaths, or a few minutes, until you feel your heart rate settle and the stray thoughts that run in like saboteurs slow down their attacks.
Now, using your hand as a counting reference, list five things that you’re thankful for right now. If you like the physicality of ticking them off with your fingers, go for it. Whenever you feel like anxiety is trying to take over, list five things you’re grateful for or five things that bring you joy. It’s not going to change the circumstances, but it’s going to change your perspective of the circumstances by reminding you of good things in your life.
And the third exercise is one of my favorites (and the reason you need an actual tracing of your hand on paper). In the space outside your hand, write down all the things you can’t control that are taking up space in your thoughts. In the space inside your hand, write down things you can control. What’s the difference in the things in your grasp and the things you can’t hold on to? If you can’t control the things outside your hand, how much mental energy should you devote to them?
We tend to think of worry as something that just happens to us because our circumstances are big and scary. But… Worry is a choice. While we can’t control every thought that pops into our heads, we can control how much we let them run around unchecked. The second we let all the things we can’t control run the narrative in our thought patterns, worry is running the show. We used the parade imagery in the first list, and even though it was a parade of negative thinking, there was order and we were telling the floats what to do, right? Now imagine for a second what that parade would look like without a chaos coordinator. Think Barney ’97. Total disaster.
Let’s use Philippians 4:6-7 as our thought process model. Don’t worry; let the thoughts pass by without letting them run the show. Pray about everything; that’s certainly something you can control, so if it’s not already in your handprint, maybe you should add it. Tell God what you need; he already knows, but you still need to express it as a need for him. Thank God for what you have. Feel that anxiety turn towards peace. That’s what putting your life in God’s hands will do.
Alright, I now have two lists of three things, and since I have moderate perfectionist tendencies, I feel the need to end on another list of three so we have three three things because two three things will not do. So… here are three things that bring me extra stress relief:
- Bee Badminton. Tis the season for carpenter bees. I hate them making swiss cheese out of my porch, so I whack them with badminton rackets. Bonus fun – now the dogs like to help by catching the ones I hit and eating them. It’s now a team sport.
- Potato Pelting. One of my dogs has a barking problem. At night I can stop her by shining a flashlight on her, but, alas, my superpower beam is useless in the day. I usually stash some tennis balls in the kitchen that I can chunk at her to redirect her attention, but, alas, all the balls are in the yard. Today I discovered some tiny potatoes that hid in a dark corner of the kitchen until I forgot about them. They’ve all sprouted and are useless for eating, but they’re the perfect size to chunk at the loudmouth dog – heavy enough to be able to throw accurately for decent distance but light enough not to injure the dog. And I’m composting (badly, I admit, but it’s composting nonetheless, and you won’t convince me otherwise).
- Writing. I was tempted to chuck it all, even the potatoes, tonight and distract myself with television and solitaire until I got sleepy. I feel much better now for having done some mental work to settle down and praying for a while. Now that I’ve dumped my brain out on a page, I feel like I’m me again.
One final hand photo to prove I may write like I have my crap together, but I can’t even trace my hand without getting Sharpie ink all over myself. This is one of at least five similar ink spots. I can barely be trusted with scissors, so I promise if I can make it through life, you can, too.
Sometimes the hits keep coming. You’ve bobbed and weaved, tucked and rolled, maybe even landed a few punches of your own… But the body blows keep coming. What then? How do you stay on your feet? Live to fight another day, as it were.
There’s good news and bad news, and that is: there is no magic formula. There is no mystic ritual or self-help mumbo jumbo. There’s just this: do the next thing; pray; breathe; rest where you can; work through what’s in front of you. It feels like great problems or great stressors should have fancier solutions than that, but I promise you there’s no elaborate plan you’re missing that will fix your issues.
The great news about there being no magic formula is that working through hard things is within your reach. You can do this. It’s not impossible, and you have a very big God on your side who wants you to not only survive, but also thrive.
The hard part is that without a magic formula, there’s no way to avoid the hard work. Sometimes it’s simple work – don’t eat all the chocolate in the house at one time no matter how you feel, maybe even exercise more than once a month – but that doesn’t make it easy. And you know what? It’s okay for simple work to be hard. It happens to everyone. I don’t know a single (honest) person who hasn’t struggled with something that felt easy to someone else. For example, my sister is an excellent housekeeper. I, on the other hand, will willfully ignore dirty dishes for days, and clutter is my middle name. I fight to complete the simple work of not becoming the next subject of the “Hoarders” series.
So how do we keep our heads down and fight through the never-ending hit parade?
Let’s take a look at the best source material I know and gain some biblical perspective.
In the book of Micah, God is speaking to his people through the prophet Micah to tell them that God was angry and sad at their disobedience and their corrupt leadership. This particular verse is my favorite verse in the entire Bible because it sums up how we’re supposed to live as Christ followers in a single verse:
“O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”Micah 6:8 NLT
It’s simple work: do what’s right (do the next thing), love mercy (cut your people some slack), walk humbly with God (spend daily time with God and keep studying the Bible). Sometimes it’s even easy work, but in my almost forty years of following Jesus, I have yet to arrive at the point where I get this right all the time. But I’ll never stop trying, no matter how many times I fail.
Hebrews 12:1-2 gives us another perspective:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.”Hebrews 12:1-2 NLT
Hebrews 11 is often called the “Hall of Faith” because it lists heroes of the faith that lived before Paul, the guy who wrote this letter to the Hebrews. Those faith superheroes are the huge crowd of witnesses Paul is talking about in Hebrews 12:1. He’s telling us that we can look at those people, who were far from perfect, and we can see their example of faith as encouragement to continue in our faith. We have a race to run that God set out for each of us (so your race will look nothing like my race), and we have to learn how to run efficiently. We need to examine our lives honestly, and gracefully, and decide what dead weight is holding us back. We need to develop our endurance. And Paul gives us a method to use to gain endurance: keep your eyes on Jesus.
It’s simple work: run with endurance towards God’s finish line; keep looking forward at Jesus. It’s not easy work. Paul doesn’t pull any punches about that either – he plainly told the Hebrews that Jesus endured a horrible death on the cross because he could see the joy of the end result. I’m not there yet. I can’t even stick to the don’t eat all the chocolate plan for more than a few days. I’m certainly not at the point of discipline even to death.
So now that I’ve crushed that pep talk, let’s look at one more simple instruction designed to help us through tough work:
“Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.”1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NLT
More simple work: always be joyful; never stop praying; always be thankful. Wherever you find yourself today, no matter what body blows you’ve been taking or for how long, I promise you have something to be thankful for. You may have to step back and take a big picture view, but if you look, you will find something for which you can be grateful and that brings you joy. Did you know that gratitude journaling is one of the top “homework” activities therapists recommend for people being treated for depression? It helps us gain perspective, and that prescription has been floating around for a few millennia now.
It’s also huge to note that along with joy and gratitude, we should never stop praying. We humans were made for social connection, and God wants us to be connected to him even more than we’re connected to our social networks. In this moment of social distancing, we never have to hold God at the recommended 6’ distance. He wants us to always be in communication with him, and when I look at what truly soothes my anxious heart, it’s always time in prayer and reading the Bible. Everything else I try (chocolate, I’m looking at you) is just an empty filler that doesn’t reach the root of my unease.
Those are all my best sources for how to survive and also thrive despite the craziness around you. But maybe you’re not convinced that there is no magic formula, no elaborate ritual to make everything right. Read 2 Kings 5.
Elisha was a great prophet for Israel, and he had a reputation for performing miracles. In this story, Naaman, who was a very important person as the commander of the Aramean army, also had leprosy. His king sent him to visit Elisha to be healed, and the king sent huge amounts of money as a gift to the king of Israel, ostensibly to gain access to Elisha, but probably meant to impress upon him how great the King of Aram was and how great Naaman was by extension. They were very important people, and very important people expect very important treatment.
Elisha heard of Naaman’s approach, and he merely sent a message to go wash seven times in the Jordan River, and then he would be healed. How do you think Naaman handled that message? How would you have handled it? Naaman was furious. He expected a personal greeting – he was a very important person, after all. He expected some herculean task, but instead all he got was a messenger telling him to go wash in a river that was inferior to all his very important rivers back home.
Naaman pitched a fit.
But Naaman’s officers talked some sense into him. They asked, “If the prophet had told you to do something very difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?” Oh, how I love Naaman and his raw human reactions. He said and did everything we say and do when God gives us simple work in response to what we view as the biggest problem/pain/issue that has ever been. We argue that simple work will not possibly be adequate to address our situation, and we pitch a fit.
I bet you pictured Naaman and his king in all of their very important person glory, and I bet you didn’t see yourself in their pride until just now. I never see my own pride right away. I pitch fits.
After I pitch my fit, I try to follow the rest of Naaman’s example. Naaman listened to his officers and gained perspective. He went and washed in the Jordan River as Elisha instructed, and he was healed. Naaman continued his humble streak and went back to Elisha to tell him that Elisha’s God was the only true God in all the land and he would never worship another God.
Naaman went from a very important person attitude to a Micah 6:8 mindset in that experience. God sets us on paths that are hard, and he expects us to follow him, to see the joy waiting for us on the other side and run with endurance towards it. Endurance isn’t always fast or pretty, but it’s consistency developed over time through experiences that test our faith and our willingness to do the simple work of following God.
What simple work are you avoiding? What is the next step you need to take in your race of endurance?
Grow – dig your roots down into the rich wonderful dirt of the Word.
Feel every inch of your soul reaching further into its depth.
Plant yourself so that your being will absorb every soul nourishing word of wisdom from your Creator.
Then grow – spread your branches wide and welcome everyone into your life-giving embrace.
Make fruit from the love filling your roots and feed the hungry, shelter the weak, clothe the poor.
Plant yourself in the world around you and stand firm as a maker of peace and love –
A reflection of your Maker.
I must focus on the most important things and channel my creativity.
My brain is very often a cluttered place to live. I’ll have a bazillion ideas at once, and it feels like I need to do them all, right now. It can be pretty tremendous pressure, especially when paired with the things already on my task list.
I understand this is a common pitfall as a creative person with my personality type, but I also understand it’s important for me to have some control over the brain clutter. I have learned a few important things in trying to tame the mess.
First, write it all down. I have a journal just for ideas. Random midnight genius inspiration? Put it in the journal and go to bed. Brilliant shower thought? Put it in the book and go on about the day. Putting it in a central idea space makes it easy to go back and pull out later when I have time to consider it and work on it.
The idea journal also gives me the gift of space. It frees my head space to work on the task before me first without losing that random inspiration thought. I don’t have to worry about forgetting it while I finish the open project. It also gives me some distance from the initial idea, so when I go back to it, sometimes I discover it wasn’t as brilliant as I initially thought. (I know, I’m as shocked as you are that all my ideas aren’t perfectly genius.)
Second, just say no. I say this like it’s going to be more effective than it was on the war on drugs when I was in middle school. It probably won’t be effective at first, but it will as you practice more. I’ve learned that if I say yes to every opportunity and every idea that comes along, I won’t do any of them well – if I manage to complete anything at all.
By limiting what I work on, I can be more productive because I can actually finish what I start. My pile of unfinished crafts is proof that all the things all at once is no way to live. The good news is, since I’ve limited the new projects I’ve allowed myself to start, I’ve been working through the old unfinished piles and completing more of them, too.
When we allow everything onto our radar at once, our capability and vision are limited by the sheer volume of stuff on the screen. If we narrow that down, we can channel more energy and creativity into a single project, making it stronger work and completing it more quickly than if it were one of a dozen projects open at once. That focus also makes it possible to move on to the next idea sooner.
If you’re anything like me, it’s a giant happy to finish a big project. That happy far outweighs the frustration of limiting what I take on, so I choose to focus on just a few things at a time.