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Familiar emotions—but how do we deal with them?

13 July 2020 | St Albans, UK [Helgi Jónsson] 

“Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).1

Emotions such as fear or anxiety are not unfamiliar to us these days. They’re probably some of the most common emotions we experience, but often we’re more reluctant to admit to our fearfulness or anxiety than to joy and happiness. Shame and stigma are often connected to them, and many emotions are related to weakness. We’re supposed to be strong; we’re always supposed to cope.

According to neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett2, emotions are made when the brain is predicting the body’s energy need in any given situation and responds to that need by releasing hormones into the bloodstream, which releases the energy from our stores. We call these hormones stress hormones. Perhaps we should, instead, call them energy hormones. When they’re released, they give us a certain bodily sensation. Based on the situation we’re in, we’ve given these feelings names, such as anticipation, anxiety, disgust, joy, fear, and so on. These concepts differ by culture. We don’t all have the same emotional concepts of the world, and therefore the brain doesn’t have specific areas for specific emotions. The brain is so brilliant and efficient. So well designed.

This prediction is constantly taking place all day long. Throughout the day we’re usually in familiar situations where there’s no uncertainty; and because of prior experiences, the brain’s system knows how much energy is needed. We are, therefore, in a neutral emotional state.

Meeting Bigger Energy Needs

But what makes us expect a bigger need for energy? That would be our thoughts and ideas. Our brain doesn’t predict a greater energy need unless we feed it with a certain interpretation of the present or the future.

If I think, for instance, that there’s a big, venomous spider in the kitchen sink, I might think I have to fight it or run away; therefore, I need more energy. Automatically, the brain makes available all the energy needed. I can sense it in the rush that goes through my body. If I just think that the black thing in the sink is a bundle of hair, there’s no greater energy need. I just reach out, grab it, and throw it into the bin—until I realise it’s a spider!

These predictions are based on our thoughts, beliefs, and trust. Our beliefs are based on our prior experiences or other knowledge we’ve gathered on our journey, and on what kind of environment we were raised in. For instance, I never worry about snakes when I’m out in nature. No matter where I travel, they never cross my mind. To me, they could just as well not exist. I wasn’t raised with snakes around me. But should I hear a sound resembling howling winds, my heart might skip a beat, because I´ve experienced the destructive powers of strong wind. Different experiences make for different reactions and emotions.

Anxiety

Anxiety is characterised by catastrophic ideas. It’s like Murphy’s law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” There’s no end to our ability to cook up catastrophes in our minds. But also, in that respect, we’re not all alike. Some of us think about all the possible worst-case-scenario outcomes, while others don’t seem to worry hardly at all. Both abilities are good; they just need to be in balance.

Imagine two friends who want to go on a road trip together. The anxious one might foresee a punctured tire, running out of gas, motor failure, bad weather conditions, and whatnot. That person will pack accordingly. The friend is focused only on the sunshine being anticipated, so a pair of sunglasses and some summer clothes are the main concern. They’re both going on a trip to unknown places, and both of them feel a tingling sensation in their abdomen. The anxious one calls it a knot in the stomach, and the other one a butterfly, because that person’s anticipating joyful things. Two different concepts based on two different interpretations of the same situation. I’m not saying they’re feeling the same thing, but similar things are going on in their bodies—perhaps with a difference in magnitude.

It’s good that the first friend has packed all kinds of things in case they do have a punctured tire; then they’re prepared. Summer clothes are of no help in such conditions. So, foreseeing negative outcomes isn’t a bad thing, as long as we don’t become too preoccupied with them.

No One Is Immune

Although I’m a trained psychiatrist and cognitive behaviour therapist, I’m not immune to emotions, such as anxiety. Working with it every day doesn’t make me unfamiliar with it on a personal level.

I remember my first year at university. I had an exam in chemistry that was scheduled for a Sabbath. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been in a similar situation in primary or high school, but this was different. This was university, the mecca of science. Why would anyone here care about my religion or beliefs? They would probably just decline my request to take the exam on another day. My thoughts took me all the way to being expelled. I would never live my dream of becoming a medical doctor, and would probably end up doing something I had no interest in. A life of unhappiness would await me. (I know; a bit over the top!)

Those were my thoughts, but not my reality. When I mustered the courage to call my chemistry professor and plead my case, she said she wouldn´t be able to comply with my request at the time. But she was surprisingly supportive and was willing to have the next exam on a different day so that I could take both at the same time. Throughout my six years at the university, I had to request a change of exam dates almost every semester. The examination supervisor got to know me, and whenever I entered his office, he would greet me with “Oh, hi! What do you need to change this time?” I had a special deal with him: I could always take the exams a day before my classmates, and he trusted me not to tell anyone about the questions. This was far from what I had anticipated a few years earlier. This taught me not to worry as much and to trust in God’s providence when I follow His will.

Leave Our Cares With Jesus

Jesus pointed toward the birds in the air and the lilies in the field (Matt. 6:25-34). He said they are taken care of. The birds don’t need to worry about getting enough to eat, because our heavenly Father will provide them with everything they need. Don’t worry about tomorrow, He said. Live today; live now. Whatever will happen comes later, and that comes soon enough. When that happens, you’ll know what it is.

Sometimes that’s easier said than done. But the more chances we take on trusting God, the more our trust in Him grows. That has been my own experience—both personally and professionally.

Today’s Fears

During the past few months almost all of us, no matter where we live on the planet, have been threatened by possible COVID-19 infection. People have feared the illness itself, but more than that, people have feared the effects of isolation and the financial implications of the government response in many countries.3 The news we’re bombarded with every hour of the day isn’t always helpful either. Some of the worries are based on a reality we cannot change. What we can change is how we interpret it. We can change our thoughts from “I can’t” to “It’s difficult, but I will manage.” Devastating things may happen, but we must live on. And we can live on. We can continue. When Jesus talked about the birds in the air, He was pointing out the fact that God values us much more than them and that He will not leave us or forsake us. When we need Him, He is there. In our ordeals we must focus on who He is.

Feelings or emotions shouldn’t be frowned upon or ridiculed; not by others and not by ourselves. They’re just reactions to our thoughts and experiences. We shouldn’t bottle them up, but rather talk about them. That way our thoughts can be questioned, new interpretations explored, and emotions normalised. Sometimes our thoughts are so rigid and ingrained in our way of being that we can’t get rid of them without professional help. We shouldn’t be ashamed of seeking it.

But even if we seek professional help, we shouldn’t forget that God cares about us and is fully aware of our temporal needs.

“For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt. 6:32-34).

We should focus our thoughts on the good things in life, the true and honourable. Focus on the Word, who came into this world to make it better. To heal and to comfort. To give a hopeful future.

He assures us: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10).
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1. All Bible texts are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2. Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Kindle edition (New York: Harcourt Mifflin Harcourt Pub., 2017).
3. See Emily A. Holmes et al., “Multidisciplinary Research Priorities for the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Call for Action for Mental Health Science,” The Lancet Psychiatry, April 2020.

This article was first published on the Adventist Review website.


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