Monday, January 20, 2014

What You Don't Know About Your Emotions

One of the most helpful things I learned in grad school for my counseling degree is how our emotions are primarily physical.

Consider when you “feel angry”. What you are actually feeling is your heart beating faster, your blood pumping to your brain, your senses sharpening, your muscles tensing to react quickly . . . it's the Fight part of the “Fight or Flight” response your body experiences when your senses perceive a threat. It is a physiological thing that your brain gives a label to: Anger. And most of the emotions we feel are similar phenomenons.

At that time, I applied this knowledge to my depression problems, and with much success. I would find myself feeling “a little blue” – low energy, moving and reacting slowly, not thinking quickly or clearly. And because of previous experience, my brain labeled that “feeling” as depression. But the truth was, there were any number of things that could have been causing those physical symptoms in my body (the top suspect, now, being the sleep deprivation I was unaware of at the time).

But my brain told me, “I'm depressed. Why am I depressed?” Well, goodness – if you start looking for reasons in your life to be depressed, you're going to find something. Poor me – I'm so unfulfilled in my life! Poor me – my husband doesn't understand me! Poor me – I had such a difficult childhood! Yeah . . . you'll find something. And then I nursed that little blue feeling into a full-blown depressive episode.

Once I started seeing those feelings as simply physical things -- signals I need to pay attention to but not necessarily reflections of reality -- I was able to keep my depression problems pretty much in check.

I was reminded of these lessons again the first night we had the new dog here last week. I was nervous. A new family member meant changes in our household that I couldn't yet anticipate and didn't know how to deal with. So, I sat there feeling all the typical anxiety symptoms – racing heart, tension, restlessness, mental super-focus on the object of my anxiety. And justifiably so.

But of course, the Enemy took the opportunity to whisper other potential concerns into my ear. What is my daughter going to wear in the school play? What is our other daughter going to do after she graduates? How are these friends of ours doing with their marriage problems? What about that friend in the hospital? What if hubby loses his job? What if one of us gets sick? And on and on . . .

And because my body was already feeling anxiety, my brain attached that anxiety to every one of those other questions and built my little bit of nervousness up to nearly a full-blown panic attack.

Luckily, I had just done my BSF lesson about Peter walking on the water. You know – how he only started to sink when he took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the waves.

These are only waves, I told myself. Just tense muscles. Just a quickly beating heart. They don't define the reality around me. Just because waves are crashing around me doesn't mean I'm going to sink . . . because I'm not.

Because Jesus is right there in front of me, telling me to walk.  So walk I can . . . and walk I will.

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