What Are the Best Emotional Health Practices?: Part 2

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This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

Ask Mission Central: Question Thirteen

“What practices have you adopted that have given you the most bang for your buck in your emotional health?”


—Kate
Chicago, IL


Answer

We’re looking at seven practices in our answer to this question. In Part 1, we started with Sabbath and Thankfulness. Today, we wrap up with Sleep, Exercise, Anxiety-Hacking, Counseling, and Hopeful Suffering.


Sleep

Spiritual writer James Bryan Smith argues that sleep is an essential dimension of our spiritual lives: “If our bodies suffer, so do our souls. We cannot neglect the body in pursuit of spiritual growth. In fact, neglecting our bodies necessarily impedes our spiritual growth” (34). If this is true at the spiritual level, so, too at the emotional level. One of the first effects of sleep deprivation is emotional dysregulation. Often, the most immediately effective change to make when facing emotional distress is to start getting more sleep.

It can be helpful to consider what keeps us from going to sleep when we need to. For me, it’s almost always one of three things:

  • I feel like I need to keep working.
  • I’m spending time with friends or family that I don’t want to cut short.
  • I’m trying to scratch an existential itch by doing something fun: just one more episode (or one more chapter)!

It might be helpful for you to come up with a similar list. Then, it’s time to get assertive. Ask yourself, what’s a way of meeting the need behind this habit that won’t keep me up at night? Then make a plan to protect the good things you’ve been doing without endangering sleep. This is another great example of the importance of Sabbath: when we don’t build restful and restorative activities into our waking hours at some point, we end up trying to “steal back” time for them anyway, in a way that’s not restful.


One of the best ways to overcome the inertia of staying awake is to establish a meaningful bedtime routine, unwinding before sleep and giving yourself cues that it’s okay to wrap things up for the day. Incorporating a brief prayer time into such a routine is also a way to keep the presence of Jesus in your mind as you drift off. If you face insomnia or other barriers to sleep beyond your control, a routine like this can give you a way to “wind down” even when true sleep remains elusive.


Exercise

I was hesitant to include exercise in this post, because it’s one of those practices I aspire to but have not made a consistent habit in my life. Right when the pandemic started, I had my longest streak of regularly running since my years on the middle school track team. But as commuting and “normal life” have come back, I’ve fallen out of the rhythm.


I was also hesitant because exercise is closely associated in U.S. culture with “fitness”—a concept that, despite forming half of the phrase “health and fitness,” often takes on unhealthy dimensions. In a culture of individual achievement, “fitness” can serve as a proxy for how effective someone is at achievement in general. We make quick judgments about others based on the shape of their bodies, even without meaning to, and those judgments incentivize goal-based exercise. We internalize those kinds of judgments from a young age; for example, about half of elementary-school-age girls express concern about their weight. For many people, that internalized voice of judgment can develop into an eating or exercise disorder.


So, when we talk about exercise as a practice for emotional health, we need to think about motive. You may have an intense, achievement-oriented personality that leads you to pursue fitness goals because of the sense of gratification it brings, not because of an unhealthy compulsion. I think of my old church staff friend who, after our busiest week of the year with a dozen services leading up to Easter, caught a flight and ran the Boston marathon that Monday. For her, it was fun! Taking on a challenge and succeeding can be immensely rewarding. Even so, it’s worth asking: why do I exercise? Is it for the fun of the challenge, or something else? 


On the other side of things, you might be like me: Not obsessed with exercise, but wanting to do it more! Propping up our sense of self-worth with how well we can achieve is an unhealthy approach to exercise, but that doesn’t negate the many real benefits of regularly working out: it helps us think more clearly, feel happier, sleep better, and live longer. The physiology and brain chemistry that make this possible are a gift from God; one of the most effective medical therapies imaginable is available for free to almost every human being on the planet. At the same time, we can only access the benefits by putting in the effort. You can’t receive the gift of exercise while staying on the couch.


In this way, our physical and spiritual life are much the same: Our walk with God is powered by grace, but if we don’t put in the effort, we won’t get very far. If you love to exercise and do it regularly, you’re receiving a gift of God to help you stay well both physically and emotionally. You know what it’s like to participate actively in a process that changes you. When you think of your life with God, let that experience motivate you: There’s a process of internal, spiritual change you get to participate in, too, with changes just as real.


If forming an exercise habit daunts you like it daunts me, maybe this spiritual framework can help you find the motive you need. Exercise isn’t about achievement or meeting other people’s expectations; it’s about entering into the gifts and joy that God has prepared for us.


Anxiety-Hacking

I’ve shared before about when I gave myself a “mistake quota” to deflate the pressure of an emotionally high-stakes job. This is one instance of a practice I like to call “anxiety-hacking.” Mental health professionals use the term “reframing,” but that word gives me a mental image of an outing to Hobby Lobby. Calling it “anxiety-hacking” helps me remember that the practice is a way of outsmarting myself, creating a healthy sense of distance between me and the loop of anxiety or other negative thoughts and feelings that I can get stuck in. Plus, it sounds cool.


Anxiety-hacking involves identifying a loop like that: a persistent negative thought. Then, instead of just accepting the thought at face value, I can “hack” it by adding something to the equation that the thought is leaving out. For example, when I put my foot in my mouth in student ministry, the thought would surface, “That was a dumb thing to say.” But then I added the neglected factor: “And that’s only one mistake; I’m allowed to make fifteen!” In truth, the mistake quota was a way of adding a deeper neglected factor: it’s unreasonable to expect myself to be perfect and smooth in every social interaction.


Scripture calls us to respond to our anxieties with an appeal to God’s love: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7 NIV). Anxiety-hacking isn’t a way of trying to “be positive” when reality is grim; it’s a way of putting dark realities side-by-side with the greater reality of God’s goodness. That’s the spiritual grounding for tricks like the mistake quota. It’s unreasonable to expect myself to always be socially suave, because my well-being is secure in the love of a good God, not in my social impressiveness. 


It might be helpful for you to think of some anxiety hacks for the negative thought patterns that routinely crop up for you. If your job is part of a pattern, consider “prepping” some things you are truly grateful for about your job, and the next time you’re in the negative loop, deploy them with the word “and”: “Yes, this stressful project is behind schedule, and I get to work with an awesome coworker for as long as it lasts.” 


Counseling

Working on my own thought patterns independently can feel so empowering. But sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. In my experience, talking with someone who’s trained to help me make sense of things can help, just like it’s meant to. Now, I do have to add a caveat that I’ve had bad and good experiences with counseling, in that order. My first counselor and I didn’t really click, and it felt like not much was happening in our sessions. I called it off, but decided to give someone else a shot. That second counselor proved catalytic for some of the biggest mental health changes in my life, particularly as it relates to my own achievement-oriented personality.


We may have the idea that seeing a counselor can help people address distinct “problems” that are affecting their quality of life, like anxiety or depression. This is true as far as it goes, but moving toward emotional health often requires looking at the bigger picture of how such experiences are related to a whole life, and a whole life story. Problems can be fixed. Lives must be lived. At its best, counseling helps us ask the question, “Given everything that’s happened to me, and that I’ve done, and how that affects my mind and emotions, how can I live well now in my present circumstances?” A safe, wise counselor creates a space where someone can untangle the web of how their experiences have affected and are affecting them.


You’ll see in this description of counseling a good bit of overlap with the work of pastors, those entrusted with the “cure of souls.” So, you might well ask, couldn’t I just talk with my pastor? This is certainly not a bad idea, and depending on the pastor, there may be some “untangling” work you can do within the four walls of the church. But, given how the two professions have developed over time, counselors are often better equipped than pastors to help with discerning deep-seated emotional patterns. They receive more training for clarifying emotional cause and effect. A Christian counselor who shares your spiritual convictions may approach their work in a way that takes both emotional and spiritual health into account. (A word of caution here: There are bad counselors of all stripes, including bad Christian counselors. If something feels “off” to you or you feel unsafe in the counseling space, listen to your instincts.)


Hopeful Suffering

It might seem odd to include suffering in a list of emotional health practices. Suffering isn’t a practice; it’s something that happens to us. But how we respond to suffering sets the bounds on our personal growth, including our emotional health and maturity. Our response to suffering is not just a one-time act of the will. It’s a whole set of habits that are reinforced over time as we encounter small difficulties, either preparing us or leaving us empty-handed when a bigger trial comes our way.


Of course, many people experience suffering long before they could be expected to know how to respond: children who are impoverished, ill, injured, bereaved, or orphaned, or whose parents split up when they are young, as well as those who face the dehumanizing traumas of abuse or neglect. We must resist the temptation to “explain” such evils, even in well-intentioned theological terms. There are no words for what many have endured.


For each of us who are no longer children, we have to make a choice about how our suffering, past and present, will shape our lives. Will we let “it,” whatever it is, have the last word? For some people, suffering brings out the worst; they become self-focused, bitter, or despairing. But the lives of those who are “patient in suffering” show us another way (Romans 12:12). I think of a psychologist and former school administrator I know who now has Parkinson’s. Despite the debilitating effects of the disease, he is as uncomplaining now as ever, always attentive in conversation to the needs of the person in front of him, and still eager to serve as he is able. His wife, too, who shoulders an increasingly heavy caretaking burden, brings joy and energy to her friendships and to her work as a spiritual director.


Such examples make us ask different questions about suffering. Will we still have a say in our lives, even while we suffer? Will we continue to act according to our convictions and to love others, seeking their good and resisting self-pity? Frankly, some forms of suffering are too debilitating for the human psyche, by itself, to even muster a response. How can the saints we see walking the hard road faithfully do what they do? This is where the good news of the cross of Christ comes in. No one can suffer well all by themselves. But the promise of Scripture is that we can be with Jesus when we suffer, drawing on a power and life that is stronger even than death. We can experience “participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,” letting him shape our character even through the difficulty (Philippians 3:10 NIV).


We will be more ready to enter into that process of being shaped by suffering if we’re used to cooperating with God as he works in our emotional life. When we face a significant source of pain, our response will be conditioned by the habits that have formed us up to that point. Each practice we’ve discussed—Sabbath, thankfulness, sleep, exercise, anxiety-hacking, and counseling—can prepare us. When we suffer, are we able to still honor times of rest, though we can’t necessarily rest from the pain? Do we still practice thankfulness? Can we accept the limitations of our bodies and ask for help when needed? Each of these facets of personal maturity will be both tested and, by God’s grace, strengthened in the fires of suffering. Even if the particular practice has to change (as with a disease that steals sleep or prevents exercise), the condition of life that it has produced within us will remain and can even continue to grow.


That’s why our suffering is hopeful. As we practice all the means God has given us to pursue emotional and spiritual health and life, we can expect to meet his grace even in the most difficult times. Every way that we receive his care for us equips us to respond to him in love and to love others sacrificially, no matter how hard our lives are. So, today, pick just one of these practices and take a first step. It may prove more influential than you expect.



Photo from Kristin Vogt on Pexels

1 thought on “What Are the Best Emotional Health Practices?: Part 2”

  1. Pingback: How Do I Move Truth from My Head to My Heart? - Mission Central

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