When the Tough Times Are Part of You

It’s well known that circumstances don’t make us unhappy; our own attitudes toward those circumstances do. It’s also well known that many people turn into miserable grouches over small annoyances while others remain joyful through the hardest trials.

But there’s another, less-well-known fact: many people who seem to regularly make big deals over nothing are dealing with tougher internal circumstances than are obvious. It’s not always “just an excuse” when someone says she “can’t help” feeling depressed or panicky; some people literally can’t help it, any more than someone with the flu can “help” running a fever. Some brains are programmed, by nature or repetition of unhealthy habits, to react badly.

Now, don’t pounce on that gleefully and assume you now have license to demand that God or anyone else exempt you from anything that might cause frustration or disappointment, on the grounds that people with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations. “Reasonable” does not mean being allowed to take a wheelchair straight to the front of every line, or to be waited on hand and foot for a year after the flu virus dies. God will not expect you to do what you can’t, but the right to decide what you can do is His, not yours. Particularly when it comes to “not… be[ing] tempted beyond what you can bear” (1 Cor. 10:13). It’s an important question, because people who struggle with mental-emotional issues tend to have particular difficulty understanding exactly what God expects of them; where the line lies between impulses that are not sinful and willful thoughts that are; and just how much blame they have to bear for giving partial way to a problem that is, for all practical purposes, always with them.

We can learn from people who live with chronic physical pain. The wiser ones don’t sit around feeling sorry for themselves because the problem may never go away; they don’t blame their doctors for what they don’t enjoy taking or giving up; and they don’t stubbornly continue in activities they were warned would make the pain worse. What they do is follow good advice–and, just as important, they distract themselves from the pain by paying special attention to the things that are right and the things they can do. So if you have a diagnosed case of major depression, a problem with obsessive-compulsive perfectionism, or just a bad thought habit that’s driving you crazy, remember these dos and don’ts:

Do take care of yourself physically; an unhealthy mind is easier to manage with the help of a healthy body. A surprising number of “depression” problems are curable through exercise and healthy eating. Your doctor can advise you on the specifics, as well as pinpointing any underlying physical cause that needs treatment.

Do take a rest whenever you feel your body asking for one, and do use deep breathing and conscious relaxation to maximize the value of that rest.

Do count your blessings at least twice a day, and do thank God for them.

Do spend extra time in prayer.

Do turn to your friends for encouragement and support.

Do find hobbies to occupy your mind.

Do choose positive sources of input–human, media, and surroundings.

Don’t complain that improving your thought habits is “too much work.” The more you dwell on the difficulty, the bigger it will get.

Don’t feel you “must” work 40 hours a week or handle all your own household chores. “Everybody does it” is dangerous thinking in any context.

Don’t turn your prayer time into a “gripe session.” Remember what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness, whose idea of praying about their difficulties was to whine, “If God really loved us, He’d remove the obstacles before we even saw them!” “So [God] declared… in… anger, ‘They shall never enter… rest'” (Heb. 3:11).

Don’t unload nonstop on your friends, either, or expect them to solve your problems for you.

Don’t encourage your mind to dwell on the negative by watching bad news or violent movies, reading vitriolic political commentary, or spending time with “pity party” acquaintances.

And one final do:

Do remember that the power to change comes from God and that scheduling it is not your responsibility. Just realizing that will be a tremendous step toward reduced stress and a joyful outlook.

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  1. Baring the Soul | Strength for the Weary

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