Monday, October 22, 2018

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): How to Beat the “Winter Blues"

Seasonal Affective Disorder: How to beat the winter bluesFall is a beautiful time of year. You can enjoy comfortable (and flattering!) leggings, fall leaves and pumpkin-flavored everything. However, for many Americans, the cool weather and shorter days means something different. They find themselves feeling down, lethargic, or sleeping way too much. They feel apathetic about work or hopeless about life.

Seasonal affective disorder (or SAD) is a very real and tangible thing. The Mayo Clinic defines seasonal affective disorder as “a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you're like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.”

Seasonal affective disorder impacts millions of Americans. An estimated 4-6% of Americans suffer from significant SAD, and another 10-20% suffer from a mild case. Women and people living in northern states and countries are at a higher risk. For example, 14% of Norwegians in Oslo report SAD vs. 4.7% of New Yorkers and those living in Washington state are 7 times more likely to suffer from SAD than those in Florida.

Over the past decade, we’ve learned more about SAD and can identify ways to decrease the impact it has. After ten years of working with individuals struggling with SAD, here are the techniques that I have seen to be most effective.

1. Be aware. Many Americans who struggle with SAD don’t initially recognize it. They assume that everybody struggles in the winter and dismiss their worsening symptoms. A first step is recognizing the symptoms of SAD, so you can seek help before things get bad. 

If you or your loved ones are experiencing some of these symptoms:

·         A change in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods
·         Weight gain
·         A heavy feeling in the arms or legs
·         A drop in energy level
·         Fatigue
·         A tendency to oversleep (Americans with SAD sleep an average of 2.5 hours more in winter than in the summer vs. Americans without SAD who only sleep 0.7 hours more)
·         Difficulty concentrating
·         Irritability
·         Increased sensitivity to social rejection
·         Avoidance of social situations—not wanting to go out

You may be suffering from SAD and should consult a doctor or counselor. Unmanaged SAD, just like regular depression, can worsen if ignored.

There is also evidence that those with bipolar or major depressive disorder’s depression symptoms can increase in the winter, so being aware of changes in your mental health and having a plan to address SAD with your counselor and doctor is crucial.

2. Buy a lightbox. Light therapy is very beneficial for people with SAD. Studies find that 60-80% of individuals with SAD report an improvement in their symptoms after using light therapy. Luckily, the light boxes are very affordable. You can find them online at sites like Amazon or Walmart. You may only need between 30-90 minutes a day to see an improvement. I use mine when I am writing or reading, and it makes a significant difference (interestingly, my dogs and cat also love it).

3. Take your vitamins. While medication can be very beneficial (or necessary depending on the severity of your symptoms), sometimes just an uptick in your vitamins can help. Several studies have linked depression with low levels of B12, folate and/or Vitamin D, and doctors will recommend increasing your vitamins as a way to help with depression symptoms*. If an increase in vitamins doesn't help, antidepressants can be a great short- or long-term option and most doctors are able to prescribe a low-dose to help you get through the winter. 

*(Be aware though that high levels of these vitamins can interact with other meds so make sure you consult your doctor first).

4. Don’t skip the gym. When it gets cold and snowy, many people stop working out. It’s too cold to run outside or snuggling in bed seems more appealing than the gym, but you need to continue exercising. It forces you get out of bed, get dressed and be around people, and exercise is a great way to help manage symptoms of depression (hooray for endorphins!).

5. Know that it may only be temporary. My first year at college, I suffered from significant seasonal affective disorder. I had moved from sunny California to northern Idaho and couldn’t handle the snow and very short days. I wanted to drop out and move back to California, but a good friend kept encouraging me. He said, “Just make it to the spring semester. The days will get longer, the weather will get warmer and you’ll feel better. Just get through the next two months.” He was right, and I have stayed in Idaho ever since (now my SAD is milder and more manageable).

It is easy when the days are long to feel like you’ll always be miserable, but people with seasonal affective disorder often report an improvement around the same time each year. As you are seeking treatment, remember that you can get through this difficult time and it is only for a few months.

6. Don't be afraid to seek help. It's okay to attend just a few counseling sessions or take antidepressants for a few months, then taper off (under your doctor's supervision) as the days lengthen and the snow melts. There is nothing wrong with short-term treatment; in fact, your doctor and/or counselor would rather offer short-term help than have someone slide into a crippling state of depression they can’t get out of.

Hopefully, these are helpful. If in doubt, talk to your doctor. They are very familiar with seasonal affective disorder and can give you tools to improve your mental health. Seasonal affective disorder does not have to rob you of the joy of winter.

What tools have you found to help you manage your winter blues?

Monday, October 8, 2018

Reducing Resentment: Learning to Say No

Over the years, regardless of the setting I’ve worked in as a therapist, one of the number one issues people want help with is learning how to say no and mean it. How do you protect your time and priorities in a kind way? How do we say no, but still stay “nice” or look like a team player? 

Man Wearing Suit Jacket Sitting on Chair in Front of Woman Wearing EyeglassesThere is an art to assertively saying no to those around us. Here are three simple steps I’ve identified to help you do it efficiently. 

1. Learn how to use the “slow yes.” Jonathan Becher complied a list of great quotes about learning to say no. CEO Tom Friel said, “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’” 

For some people, this seems obvious. Don’t say yes without thinking it through. But for people who habitually blurt out yes, this is so much easier said than done.

People often impulsively agree to things for several reasons. They want validation, they want to avoid conflict, they feel obligated to help everyone, they have to be “nice," they worry that if they don't do something, it won't get done. So often, people will say “yes” before they even think through the consequences of their decision. Unfortunately, when the dust has settled and they have yet another commitment, it is easy for resentment to creep in.

The best way to avoid this scenario is to implement the “slow yes.” There are several ways to do this. You can say, “That sounds like it could be fun, but I’ll have to look at my calendar and get back to you.” If you struggle with saying yes because of the desire to avoid the conflict from saying no, it may be easier for you to take a few days, calm down, then politely say, “I’m swamped lately and this isn’t a good time for me to add another commitment.”

Another technique involves waiting before answering emails or texts. One client admitted that if he immediately responded to his emails, he often impulsively said yes without thinking it through. He found that if he waited a few hours and thought about the situation objectively, he was more likely to respond calmly and could say, “I’m not ready to do that at this time, but I will let you know if that changes.”

2. Remember it is okay to change your mind. People who have difficulty saying no often struggle with guilt if they change their mind. They realize they don’t have the time or energy, but instead of telling others their plans have changed, they tell themselves, “you committed to this, you have to do it.” They stay up all night to complete a project or run around helping everyone, while their resentment begins to build.

If that is you, remember that very few things in life cannot be changed. There are some exceptions (you may not be able to walk away from a work commitment), but overall, few commitments are completely inescapable. It is okay to tell someone, “You know, I thought I had time for this, but I realized that I’m just unable to do it. You will have to find someone else.”

Even in a commitment at work that you can’t walk away from, there are often ways to resolve that as well. It is okay to say, “You know, I thought I could do this project completely on my own, but it’s larger than I thought. I would like to get help from someone else” or “is there someone on the team that can assist me with this? I want to make sure something this important is done well.”

3. Create a catchphrase. If you are saying yes to desperate or unhealthy people, they may try to pressure or guilt you into changing your mind (“But you’re the only person who knows how,” “I thought you cared about me”). However, if you know objectively that you need to say no, stay firm. Don’t let your emotions take over your response.

People who avoid conflict have a difficult time with this. They may say no to someone, but as soon as the person says, “Please stay, I need you,” or “I thought you were more committed to this process,” they change their mind. Guilt or a fear of conflict consumes them and they say, “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll keep helping you.”

If you find that saying no makes your heart race and you find yourself backpedaling or trying to defend yourself, a simple “catchphrase” can help. For example, when I worked at a call center, instead of trying to make excuses or defend myself, I was taught to say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Regardless of how upset I was, I could say that sentence calmly and firmly.

When my friend who was a professor was confronted by angry students, she would say, “It’s in the syllabus.” If they got upset, she would simply repeat, “I understand you are upset, but it’s in the syllabus.” If you try to defend yourself and start getting flustered, unhealthy people will sense that you are weakening and keep trying to talk you into changing your mind.

If you know the person you are saying no is unhealthy, come up with a simple statement that you can repeat even if your adrenaline is going off. “I’m sorry, but I’m not able to help at this time.”

Often, people avoid saying no because it feels "mean," but long-lasting resentment from always saying "yes" can be more detrimental. In Rising Strong,* Brene Brown argues: "Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They're compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment."  

These are only a few techniques, but they are a great start. Listen to your gut, and if you feel the tendrils of resentment in your heart, try implementing these techniques. The discomfort of saying no in the moment will often prevent resentment in the future. So try using a slow yes or your catchphrase, deep breathe through any feelings of guilt or discomfort that come up, then relax. You'll be surprised how quickly you'll start to regain control of your schedule, your time and your life. 

*This is an Amazon affiliate link. If you click on it, I may or may not get a small kickback. Either way, Brene Brown is amazing and her books are worth reading. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The One Discussion Parents Need to Have with Their Children…but aren’t.

As stories and accusations of sexual harassment and assault by film directors, movie stars, gymnastic coaches and politicians have surfaced in the past few months, I have been more shocked by the public’s surprised reaction than the actual allegations. As a social worker, I am deeply aware that at least 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will be sexually abused at some point in their lives and that predators come in all sizes and shapes. I’ve worked with hundreds, even thousands of sexually abused or harassed adults and children from all walks of life over the past decade. I have no problem believing that sexual abuse, harassment, and assault is rampant.
affair, apple, girl

However, despite the pervasiveness of abuse in American culture, we still don't talk about it. Although many parents will discuss the basics of sexuality and anatomy with their children, they are not talking about darker side of sexuality: pornography, online sexual harassment, what to do when someone inappropriately touches or pressures you, how do you handle people online asking for "nudes?" 

There is still a tendency to assume that sexual harassment and abuse happens to “other people” or minimize the effects it has on victims. We pretend that if we are a certain religion/race/socioeconomic status, that it won’t happen to our children. I’ve worked with many Christian parents who are convinced that if they shelter their children enough, they won’t be sexually harassed or exposed to the world of pornography or internet sexualization.

And yet, the children of even the most diligent parents are being exposed to people online demanding nudes, sending pornographic videos and sexually explicit texts. There was a teen whose online friend (who supposedly lived in another state) stalked her, found her school, followed her home and beat her up because she had “too many male friends online.” There are stories of teens being blackmailed, peers forwarding nudes to the whole school and adults and teachers sexting students. For our youth, sexuality still remains intertwined with power, harassment and assault, and thanks to smartphones and easy access to the internet, your children, friends and peers are being exposed to it constantly.

Many parents assume that online harassment, exposure or assault won’t happen to their children, but it is. A study by the Barna Group found that “62% of teens and young adults have received a sexually explicit image and 41% have sent one (usually from/to their boy/girlfriend or friend).” A different analysis of “nearly 500 accounts from 12- to 18-year-old girls about their negative experiences with sexting found that over two-thirds had been asked for explicit images.”

I’ve worked with 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds sending topless photos to strangers or peers through Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook. I’ve had parents weeping in my office, horrified by the amount of pressure and aggression of strangers and peers online towards their children. And even if your child isn't directly doing these things, they have friends that are talking about it.

Sexual predators do not care that your child is a Christian/from a good family/has loving parents. They don’t care that your child is underage.

Even the best-intentioned parents, who have had the birds and bees conversation appropriately with their children, often share when they found out their child was searching for pornography, being harassed online or using apps like Tinder, they didn’t know how to handle it so they didn’t address it.

It must be addressed. Pornography and online harassment. Is. Everywhere.

  • Nearly half of young adults say they come across porn at least once a week—even when they aren’t seeking it out.
  • Nearly three-quarters of young adults (71%) and half of teens (50%) come across what they consider to be porn at least once a month, whether they are seeking it or not.
  • A study of Christian men found that 79% of men (18-30) view pornography monthly, 67% of men (31-49) view pornography monthly, and 49% of men (50-68) view pornography monthly, and younger and younger children are being exposed with detrimental effects.
  • Pornhub (the world’s large pornography site) boasts that there were 81 million visits a day and 28.5 billion visits total in 2017.
Your children will probably be exposed to pornographic images, harassment or inappropriate messages at some point and even if they don’t think it will, it will impact them negatively.

According to a research article from the American College of Pediatricians, a study where young adults were exposed to pornography found that:

1.    Male subjects demonstrated increased callousness toward women.
2.    Subjects considered the crime of rape less serious.
3.    Subjects became more interested in more extreme and deviant forms of pornography.
4.    Subjects were more likely to say they were dissatisfied with their sexual partner.
5.    Subjects were more accepting of sexual infidelity in a relationship.
6.    Subjects showed a greater acceptance of female promiscuity.

Do these negative effects surprise you? It shouldn’t. A group of teenage girls who told me about the 80-20 rule: that you should expect that your boyfriend or husband will be faithful 80% of the time, cheat the other 20% and you have to accept this. Adult women consistently confess that the sexual acts they do with their partners is because men need those things to be fulfilled sexually, regardless of the women’s discomfort.

We see these beliefs on social media as well. People minimize the impact of assault and harassment, they justify infidelity and there is still such a strong undercurrent of misogyny in America, it takes my breath away. We say that groping young women at work “isn’t that big of a deal.” People blame victims. Parents assume their teenage daughters are lying when they report that mom’s boyfriend is sexually abusing them. Parents say that incest was “consensual” so it’s okay.

Researchers have made the argument that pornography teaches the viewer certain facts that can then bleed into their real life: that women must be up for anything anywhere, it is about your sexual fulfillment, not your partner’s, and that the human body is a series of parts, not a whole being with a personality and brain included.

Knowing all of this - the  high level of pornography use, the negative impact on feelings of sexual fulfillment once they do become sexually active, the constant pressure to be sexualized at a young age, and it's impact on our sons and daughters’ attitudes towards one another - are we surprised there is still a culture of minimization towards lewd comments, groping at work, and a sense of sexual entitlement by those in power?

It is important to remember that the birds and bees conversation is separate from the pornography conversation. Teaching your children the correct name for body parts and explaining how God has made the act of sexual intimacy as a beautiful part of marriage is important, but it is not enough to prepare your children for a glimpse of pornography at a friend’s house or on someone’s phone at school. Because ultimately, even if you have filters or your child doesn’t have a smartphone, the odds that your child will be exposed through another child’s phone (or an older sibling’s) is high.

This means that you must start the conversation now. Research varies on the average first age that a child will view a pornographic image (once study found age 13, others have found as young as 10-13). As a counselor, I’ve worked with 8-year-olds who have seen or searched for it. A large survey of American young people revealed that 51% of males and 32% of females claimed to have viewed pornography for the first time before they were 13 years old.

Don’t wait to have those conversations with your children until they are older. Many of the youth I’ve worked with are overwhelmed, confused, uncertain about internet safety and how to handle those situations, and as parents, we are not preparing them. I have had dozens of conversations with parents that stare at me blankly when I asked if they have ever discussed pornography and its’ dangerous effects on their children, or worse, they deny the need for the conversation because “my child would never do that.”

We cannot lie to ourselves any longer. In 2018, the conversation about pornography and sexual objectification with our children is no longer optional.

If we don’t have those tough discussions when they are younger, are we surprised that when someone in power gropes them, makes lewd comments or sexually assaults them, it doesn’t get reported? That they feel confused? Or that they feel like this is “just part of life”? That their bodies are there for other people’s pleasure? Our children are receiving these messages at such a young age, with few positive and protective messages to counteract them.

We need to teach our children that they have control over their own bodies. That their value has nothing to do with how sexually appealing they are. That when a sexual partner or coworker or boss or coach or teacher or peer asks them to do something they are uncomfortable with, it is okay to say no. And if someone grabs them or hurts them, they need to speak up.

If you are unsure of where to start, there are several great resources on the internet. Once good site is for children 8-11. has great research and resources about the impact of pornography on the brain.

Although it is uncomfortable for parents to have the pornography talk, it is necessary. We must make sure our children are not caught off-guard when an ad pops up, a friend shows them something on Snapchat, or a boyfriend asks for “nudes” from them. 

Sheltering your children is not enough anymore. We must be willing to go beyond the birds and the bees, regardless of our comfort level.  

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Finding Rest: How to Combat Emotional Exhaustion

Finding Rest
In 1974, a man named Herbert Freudenberger published a journal article about "occupational burnout." Initially focused on burnout in the workplace, it has since spawned a body of research spanning 40 years examining why some people succeed in stressful job situations and others "burn out" quickly. Why some people can cope with difficulties and others fall apart. 

Whether it's in the workplace or your home life, there are a number of factors that can lead to burnout. All of them can impact us, but one theme I consistently see in people who are struggling is a sense of "emotional exhaustion." Researchers have determined that emotional exhaustion often results from too many job or personal demands and a constant level of stress. 

It leaves people feeling "drained," easily overwhelmed, fatigued and they have difficulty finding pleasure in the successes they do have.

How many of us does that describe right now?

Although emotional exhaustion is often examined through the lens of the job performance, emotional exhaustion permeates every area of our lives. In a society where there is pressure to do well as your job, be the perfect parent and have a showroom-worthy home (all while maintaining friendships and your social media), it is easy to slip into a state of emotional exhaustion where you consistently feel like you aren't doing a good enough job. 

Just look at memes and articles online. There are so many cartoons and posts about people feeling wiped out, struggling to get through the day, and feeling overwhelmed by their children/responsibilities/lives. It's no wonder so many Americans hide in their phones, video games, and pornography. We need something to take the edge off, to numb ourselves, to isolate because life just feels hard.

The beauty is that emotional exhaustion is not inevitable. Research of employees found that overall, using positive coping skills such as seeking advice from others, working harder and maintaining a healthy sense of internal control ("I've got this") was associated with lower levels of exhaustion and using coping skills such as avoidance led to higher levels. Using this research, companies have been able to use several techniques to help their workers go from feeling burnt out to positive and in control, and I believe we can use this information to help all of us, regardless of your job title or role. The best part? These concepts are also biblically-based.

So how do we decrease our feelings of emotional exhaustion?

Learn to prioritize. There are so many demands for our time, and we only have a limited number of hours per day. Learn to prioritize what you say yes to and find ways to simplify your day. It is okay to buy your family pizza instead of creating Pinterest-worthy recipes daily. Don't beat yourself up if you need to buy pre-made cupcakes for your child's party. You don't need to organize every social event at your job. It is okay to say no and cut corners occasionally if it gives you a moment to breathe. 

Luke 10:38-42 tells us the familiar story of Mary and Martha:

"As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, 'Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!'

'Martha, Martha,' the Lord answered, 'you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed--or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

Martha's priorities not only kept her from time with Jesus, but it made her resentful and frustrated. Emotional exhaustion results from feeling like you have little control over your life and eventually leads to bitterness and resentment. Learning to prioritize and define your schedule can help you regain a stronger sense of control (which reduces emotional exhaustion).

Adjust your expectations. There is a difference between standards and overly high expectations. It is reasonable to have a good work ethic and be an involved, caring parent. However, many of the clients I see with emotional exhaustion have unreasonably high expectations for themselves to be "perfect," so when they make a mistake (they forgot to sign their child's permission slip, missed an appointment, or didn't attend a lunch meeting), they beat themselves up emotionally ("I'm a failure as a parent/worker/spouse). 

Striving to be a "perfect parent" can be detrimental to your mental health and will contribute to a sense of emotional exhaustion, so tempering your expectations and reminding yourself that it is okay to make mistakes can be helpful. 
Find your tribe. We often view seeking help as "weakness" or that being honest about our struggles will reflect badly on our abilities. However, researchers found that seeking advice from others was one of the most important ways workers could reduce emotional exhaustion.

So surround yourself with a community of people who can support you and give you advice. Struggling to get everything done? Start a babysitting co-op. Swap premade dinners with a friend. Delegate appropriately at work. Learn to ask for advice from people who love you, but will also be honest when you are doing too much or holding yourself to ridiculously high standards. People you listen to when they tell you that you are stretched too thin and need to take a step back. 

One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 15:22: "Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers, they succeed" (NLT). If you find yourself feeling emotionally exhausted or burnt out, build up or reach out to your support network. 

These are only a few techniques. Interestingly, they are not anything new; many of us have heard these at one point or another. However, too many people struggle with actually implementing them and find themselves on the verge of burnout. 

If you find that even with taking these steps, you are still worn out, edgy and irritable, please seek help. Find a solid counselor, consult your pastor, meet with a mentor, spend time in prayer. 

In Matthew 11:28-29, Jesus tells us: "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." 

Don't let the popular culture tell you that we were made to barely make it through the day. God wants us to rest, and he gives us the tools to do so. We just have to use them.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Insidious Root of Bitterness & Anger

This morning I stumbled across a quote from A.W. Tozier (a famous theologian). It said: "We cannot pray in love and live in hate and still think we are worshipping God."

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I believe that many Christians would read this and say, “But I’m not living in hate, I’m doing pretty well.” And from outward appearances, they are. They are nice to people at the grocery store, they buy their children’s teachers end-of-school gifts, they volunteer in the nursery at church. But as a counselor, I also hear story after story of how many of us as Christians appear okay on the outside, on Facebook, Instagram, Sunday morning, but as soon as Monday hits, we struggle with internal “hate”: anger, bitterness, resentment. We smile on Sunday, but after picking up our spouse’s shoes for the third time (by Tuesday!), we let anger and frustration fester: “No one ever picks up after themselves, I can’t believe my spouse can’t do a simple task like picking up his shoes. I’ve asked him a hundred times…”

Note that I am writing under “we.” I am just as guilty of this. Despite having all of the psychological tools at my fingertips, I still struggle with frustration, road rage, resentment, and anger. Not all at once. Often, I think I’m doing pretty good. I view my job, my spouse, my children, my family and my church positively. But it’s amazing how subtly resentment creeps up on me. How I’m doing okay until I’m merging on the freeway or my children start bickering again (hello summer break!).

When I was younger, I would say that those feelings weren’t a huge deal. I could still paste a smile on and “fake it.” However, the Bible is clear that God views anger just as negatively as other, more “obvious” sins. We often quote James 1:19 (NIV): “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” but skip James 1:20 which reminds us that “because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” We can justify anger all we want, but ultimately, it goes against the righteousness that God wants from us.

And for those who say, “Well, I don’t struggle with anger,” remember that anger takes on many forms. Paul told the Ephesians to “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” (Ephesians 4:31 NIV). Bitterness, resentment, rage (even road rage!) are just as dangerous as full-on anger and aggression.

Jesus was very clear that our internal feelings and beliefs are just as important as our actions. In Mathew 5:21-24, Jesus warned us that: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

Jesus didn’t want people to go through the motions in the temple where they offered their sacrifice for outward appearances, but secretly seethed or burned with resentment on the inside.

So how do we get rid of anger? How do we let go of the bitterness and resentment towards others that we struggle with throughout the week, so our hearts are pure when we approach God?

Pray for them. As part of the Beatitudes, Jesus said that we must “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you.” (Luke 6:28 NLT). When we pray for others, it becomes easier to step out of that cycle of justification and rationalization we fall into. “But you don’t know how much he/she hurt me,” “He’s just so awful to me,” “My boss purposely makes my life harder.” When we fall on our knees and focus on the fact that we are all human, and admit that we all makes mistakes, it makes it easier to move from anger to acceptance. Sometimes it is humbling to realize that someone right now could be gritting their teeth and praying about something you did to them!

We have to come to a place where we believe that God is in charge of the situation and realize that the anger we hold onto does not resolve the problem. Seething about your spouse while doing the dishes doesn’t improve the situation and all that bitterness does is slowly devour you!

Find someone to hold you accountable. I had a situation where someone hurt me very badly emotionally. I remember one day I was ranting to a friend a year later (it took me a longgggg time to get over it), and she looked at me and firmly said, “Hilary, get over it. It’s been a year, you need to move on.” I think my mouth literally dropped open, and although I was initially defensive, she was right! I needed to get over it and move forward. We need people in our life to say, “I love you, but this anger is killing you, you need to deal with it and move on.”

Create some distance. I have had some situations in my life where no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t let go of my anger. I had a job where it literally got to the point where my heart rate went up the moment I walked in the door and I could feel my resentment simmering the entire eight-hour shift. I realized that despite praying, using thought stopping and trying to reframe my frustration into something more positive, I just. couldn’t. stop. stewing. So, I found another job, one where my needs were being met and I could function at full capacity.

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations or relationships that are so toxic, we can’t see straight. Those may be the moments where you step back from the friendship, job or church situation and try to regain some perspective. I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with saying, “I’m not in a good place right now. I love you/this job/this church, but I need a small break to find clarity.” Even in a marriage, we can tell our spouse, “This topic is too intense, we need to take a break from discussing it, so I can figure out how I can better handle it.”

Ephesians 4:26It is easy to minimize the impact of anger in our lives, especially when it is the low-level frustration and resentment, but Ephesians 4:26-27 is clear: “And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil.” I used to dismiss this idea, did we really have to let go of anger immediately? But I’ve learned that the answer is yes. Being angry at your spouse/children/boss/family leaves you vulnerable to the Enemy.

Hebrews 12:15b tells us to: “Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many” (NLT). Anger often becomes resentment, which turns into contempt, which turns into bitterness. So when Satan whispers, “You’re better off without your spouse/church/job/family,” it is easier to believe him. Hebrews warns us that bitterness can corrupt many, and it's often true. Because we exist in a community, the choices you make don't just impact you or your marriage, they impact those around you as well. And it's amazing how often those feelings started with a simple tendril of resentment or frustration.

Do not let anger give Satan a foothold. Use these techniques to let go of that frustration and bitterness. Find a friend to hold you accountable. Pray fervently for those who wronged you. Create some distance and use that space to seek counseling and learn to be as gracious with others as Christ is with you. As Christians, we must be authentic. If you look content and joyful on the outside, make sure that your inner self is too!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Finding Hope in Suffering: Psalm 126:5-6

I recently taught a high school psychology class, and towards the end of the semester, we started a unit on the psychology of emotions. The students were surprised there are psychologists who spend their entire careers focusing on emotions – what they are, how they impact our behaviors and thoughts, and why we have them. I asked the students if they knew why we had emotions, and one kid in the back yelled out, “Because Jesus gave them to us.” It led to an interesting discussion about the complexity of human emotion and the benefits and disadvantages of feelings.

Finding a joyful harvest
We know that emotions can be a wonderful thing. They allow us to feel loved and connected to others. David danced and laughed for joy, Jesus told his disciples, “I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” (John 15:14 NLT) and Paul wrote, “How we thank God for you! Because of you, we have great joy as we enter God’s presence” (1 Thess. 3:9 NLT). God created us to experience love, laughter and joy here on Earth.

But Ecclesiastes 3:4 also tells us that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” We know that along with the positive emotions, there are difficult emotions. There is grief, suffering, emotional and physical pain, guilt, addiction, fear, anxiety, depression. And although I know that I treasure laughter more after I’ve wept, and that dancing is more poignant after mourning, those emotions can still feel like such a burden.

One difficulty of being a social worker is knowing that I will have to deal with fear, anxiety, grief and hurt not only in my personal life, but my work life as well. There are nights, driving home from work, where I have seen horrible things and I literally feel my heart in my chest. When I’m an edgy mess, tears behind my eyes, on the verge of falling apart. The emotion is overwhelming. 

I had a client several years ago say, “Why do you even care? I’m sure you go home and forget your day.” There are times where I wish this was the case, when the weight of suffering weighs on my soul. Even after ten years, there are so many moments that I remember vividly – horrible child abuse cases, heart-wrenching conversations with victims of sexual abuse, watching people reject help and resources, conversations with those who have just survived a suicide attempt – and I still see their faces, hear their words and feel an echo of that sorrow and grief. Ask any police officer, nurse, counselor, paramedic, social worker or pastor about their "worst" cases, I promise you, they will remember them in detail.

The answer is not to reach a point where you forget those faces or your heart is so hardened that you can't feel anymore. I’ve always said that when I reach the point as a social worker where I see suffering and feel nothing, I need to find a different line of work. We are called to walk alongside others emotionally. In Romans 12:15, Paul tells us to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (ESV). 

But how do we do this without feeling overwhelmed or becoming jaded? How do we weep with others while maintaining healthy boundaries? How do we keep from falling apart?

I recently came across Psalm 126:5-6 and it spoke to me.

“Those who plant in tears will harvest with shouts of joy.
They weep as they go to plant their seed, 
but they sing as they return with the harvest” (NLT).

Sometimes we plant in tears. Helping others can be painful. Seeing suffering, evil, sin and the consequences of addiction feels like a weight on our soul. Even more difficult is when we see suffering, but don’t receive closure. We never find out what happened to that child that went into foster care, we never know if that patient ever found sobriety, we don’t know if that teenager managed to survive their chaotic family. That lack of closure and the intensity of emotions with others leaves us vulnerable. It becomes easier to question and doubt God’s justice, His goodness, His plan for other’s lives when we are overwhelmed by grief over the suffering of others.

But reading Psalms 126:5-6 reminds us that planting seeds isn't always a frolic through the farm, singing and throwing seeds. There are times where planting seeds in others is easier, when we laugh and discuss the Bible over coffee, when we worship together and giggle at a retreat. But there are times when the needs of others feels unending, when showing the love of Jesus is back-breaking, emotionally damaging work. When work leaves us broken ourselves, wondering how we can keep helping others when we feel like we are drowning.

We may weep as we plant our seeds in others, but we find hope knowing ultimately, there will be a joyful harvest. We may not see the beauty from ashes in every person we impact, but I know that if I can even plant a few seeds of hope, compassion, and Jesus' love in someone else, it is worth the tears. I have watched God take incredibly depressing situations and make them beautiful. I have seen people survive situations I can’t even imagine and use their suffering to help others. 

I hope that at the end of my life, when God shows me those whose lives I touched, I will shout for joy as well. That my tears for others, my broken heart over the suffering of this world was not in vain.

So the next time I feel despondent, I will remind myself that while it is okay to cry tears, I must also remember to rejoice in the hope that God is a god of justice, compassion, love and He is in control. Psalm 10:14 reminds us:

“But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; 
you consider their grief and take it in hand. 
The victims commit themselves to you; 
you are the helper of the fatherless" (NIV).

I will continue to obey His call to love and serve, even in dark moments when my heart is breaking. My prayer is that those of you that are serving and also struggling will rest on God's promise that a joyful harvest is coming. That He will help the fatherless, the afflicted, those who are grieving, the captives to their addictions and pain, and because of Him and a few humble seed-planters, the broken will shout for joy.

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