Sometimes I get the feeling that the whole world is against me, but deep down I know that’s not true. Some of the smaller countries are neutral. Robert Orben
Robert Orben knows exactly how living in a state of upheaval can make us feel. It can seem like the forces of the cosmos are arrayed against us, determined to render us incapacitated. At other times we don’t feel quite so overwhelmed. Instead, we may feel more like the Outreach of Hope staff who described the feelings they experience when faced with change as: disrupted, exhausted, apprehensive, angry, discombobulated, panicky, flustered, inconvenienced, like I’m drowning, disconnected, sick to my stomach.
These feelings are not surprising. Serious illness brings changes into our lives that are unwelcome and disruptive. And change, even when it’s positive, can overthrow order and ruin routine. It launches us out of our comfort zone and into uncharted waters. Even the most adventuresome and courageous individuals rarely handle an unplanned journey into the unknown very well.
The uncertainty we feel as a result of changes in our lives can set off an emotional chain reaction that puts our coping strategies to the test. Even so, there are steps we can take to better understand and live with our uncomfortable, unpredictable, sometimes volatile, stubbornly illogical, and occasionally overwhelming emotions.
Acknowledge Their Existence.
Denying or downplaying our emotions doesn’t make them go away. They are such a large part of who we are that to shut them off or deny them means that we deny a significant part of who we are. Suppressed emotions simply go into hibernation until they one day (when we least expect it) awaken from their slumber and demand an audience. The problem is we don’t know when they will awaken, what form they will take, or what demands they will make of us when they do.
One woman shared that when she experiences changes she shifts into a mental state of “reset.” She doesn’t deny her emotions. She acknowledges that they exist and knows their source, but she “doesn’t give them much air time.” She simply hits a mental reset button and moves on. While this may seem to be an effective way to cope with change because it creates little external emotional disruption, this woman readily admits that her coping style is costly. “Every time I hit the reset button, a part of me—my feelings, my dreams, my value as a person who has needs—dies.”
Another woman who has difficulty acknowledging her emotions has learned to schedule time in her day to give her emotions free reign. She gets on her exercise bicycle and lets her feelings go where they need to go without trying to suppress or justify them. She likens her peddling therapy to “emotional housekeeping—there’s no dirty laundry left lying on the floor to stink up the place.”
Recognize Your Emotional Sensitivity.
Just as a barometer is affected by weather changes, emotions are easily affected by exposure to changes in our environment. Most cancer treatments and medications, for example, affect our emotions. Changes in eating and sleeping habits, changes in our spiritual health and daily routine, and the stress of ongoing adjustment to new situations can have a dramatic impact on how we feel.
Sudden changes in emotional health such as increased irritability, anger, sadness, withdrawal from family and friends, inability to cope, or lethargy should first be discussed with your physician because they may be the result of current treatment or medications. Your doctor may be able to change or prescribe new medication or alter your treatment plan so that your emotional health is less affected. Even if that is impossible, there is some relief in knowing that an emotional condition is temporary and has a definite cause.
The same emotional changes mentioned above can also be the result of depression. Depression is a medical condition caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. It can be brought on by severe stress, major life changes, serious or chronic illness, or certain prescription medications, although it sometimes occurs for no apparent reason. It may not provide much comfort, but health professionals believe that many cancer patients and caregivers experience clinical depression sometime during or after treatment. However, most of them do not seek help, and help is readily available. Dr. John Shuster, Medical Director of the University of Alabama Hospice, states that depression is “much like pain in the setting of cancer—there is not a good reason that an individual with cancer should have to suffer with (this) common and very distressing com-plication when effective treatments are readily available and easy to use.”
If you suspect that you or someone you love is suffering from depression, talk with your physician. Tremendous advances in treatment for depression have made it possible to significantly lessen its emotional impact and duration. Most physicians will prescribe medication that restores normal chemical balance in the brain and will also recommend counseling to help address and manage the possible causes of the depression.
Don’t Face Your Emotions Alone.
Resist the temptation to try to work through your troubling emotions on your own. By their very nature, emotions can be overwhelming and confusing, so an objective perspective is often helpful. Talk through your feelings with a wise and trusted family member, friend, counselor, or pastor who can help you sort out what you’re feeling. At other times you may just need someone who is a good listener and who and cares about what is happening in your life without trying to solve your problems, answer your difficult questions, or set you straight on your theology.
In addition, consider writing down your feelings in a journal. Simply expressing your feelings on paper often lessens their intensity. The process of expressing your feelings in writing can also help clarify the issues that trouble you. It can help you know what, if any, actions to take such as confronting someone who has wronged you, placing boundaries on a relationship, or spending more time praying about a particular issue.
Explore the Roots of Your Emotions.
Our emotions expose the condition of our heart, revealing when our heart is happy and when it is troubled. So we need to pay close attention to the messages our emotions are sending.
Martha’s (not her real name) anger was apparent from the moment she picked up the phone. She was angry with her doctor for not promptly returning her call, her husband for being insensitive to her pain, and the church for not calling for weeks, and the list didn’t stop there. If you knew Martha, she was mad at you for something. After some much-needed venting, her friend asked, “What’s behind all of your anger?” After several moments of silence, she began to explore her feelings. What she uncovered wasn’t anger at all.
Martha’s outbursts began shortly after a family gathering. Because of recent changes in her health, she wasn’t as outgoing and energetic as usual. Her family responded to her change in behavior by making several unkind and insensitive remarks. When no one rose to her defense, her feelings were hurt. She felt abandoned and utterly alone in her cancer battle, which was a battle for her life. She eventually shared her feelings honestly with each family member. She explained how much she needed them and how hurt she had been by their responses that day. As a result of exploring the roots of her emotions, Martha not only restored some fractured relationships, but her support system became much more sensitive and responsive to her situation.
Balance Your Feelings With Truth.
Emotions can scream so loud that they drown out the truth. That’s why we have to give truth its say, its moment in the limelight. We have to make a conscious effort to balance what we feel by what we know to be true.
We may even need to write out specific truths and carry them with us on note cards so that we are prepared to counter our emotions with the truth before our feelings rage out of control. Here are some examples of balancing our feelings with truth:
What We Feel
Abandoned by God – I will never leave you nor forsake you. Hebrews 13:5
This will never turn out right – In all things God works for the good of those who love him. Romans 8:28
God doesn’t care anymore – Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will never forget you! Isaiah 49:15
Scripture instructs us “to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). When we counter our emotions with the truth of God’s Word, we are better able to respond appropriately to our feelings, to gain a sense of balance when the world around us feels anything but balanced.
Will this take away our painful emotions? Will it solve all of our emotional problems? No. Sometimes we simply get stuck in an emotional rut and need trained help to get out. When a recurring emotion is particularly troubling and nothing we’ve tried brings relief, we may need to seek counsel from those who are trained and gifted by God to help us deal with our emotional pain (See Proverbs 15:22; 19:20; 20:18.)
Hand Your Feelings Over to God.
When the process of dealing with change causes us to have troubling emotions, we do need to admit our feelings, try to uncover their origin, respond appropriately to the messages they are sending, and balance them with the truth of God’s Word. But if those feelings still remain at the end of the day, it’s time to take our emotions to their Creator and hand them over. By doing so, we admit that we don’t understand our feelings, that we can’t always control them, and that we certainly can’t fix them. Like releasing a balloon for flight, we can take the feelings that are troubling us and literally release them to God.
We can also ask God to give us specific Scriptures that can anchor us when our emotions feel out of control. We can ask Him for discernment so we can better understand what our emotions are saying, what messages they are sending. We can ask Him for wisdom to know what, if anything, we need to do with those messages. And we can rest in the knowledge that God fully understands our human emotions because they originated with Him. What’s more, He lived on this earth and experienced every single emotion we experience. In the end, we can surrender our emotions to the only One who will take them and give us His peace in exchange.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.