Overcoming Negative Emotions

We’ll Get Through This!

Extended quarantine has been an entirely new experience for all of us. A constant conversation among the leadership at our church has been, “How do we care for our people and keep them connected when our personal contact must remain so limited?” We’ve tried a lot of different approaches with varying success, but as we all know, nothing is the same as real human contact. This is hard. We all miss people.

Knowing our in-person contact is limited for the foreseeable future, I wanted to share a few thoughts that I hope might help you deal with the burden of isolation that so many of us feel. When negative emotions seem to be taking over, here are some things you can do.

1. Change Your Scenery

If you are in a cycle of negative thoughts, the quickest thing you can do is to interrupt that cycle. Even if you cannot leave your house, you might try going to a different part of your residence, sitting in a different chair, or looking out a different window. If you can, taking a quick walk outside can be of great benefit. Even better if you can find a cabin to rent somewhere for a day or two. Change your scenery.

2. Change Your Perspective

Your explanatory style is what you say in your head about what you are experiencing. How do you interpret what is going on? A pessimistic explanatory style is detrimental to your mental/emotional health. Pessimists look at negative situations and tend to believe they are:

  • Permanent – “This will last forever.”
  • Pervasive – “This will undermine everything.”
  • Personal – “This is all somehow my fault.”
  • Uncontrollable – “I am helpless to do anything.”

Pessimists tend to hide behind the claim that they are just “realists” but this isn’t objective truth. It’s simply a way of looking at things, and frankly, a lame defense for personal negativity. If you see yourself in any of these thought traps, you may need to work at shifting to an optimistic explanatory style for your problems. Did you know that optimistic thinkers live an average of 15 years longer than pessimists? It really matters how you look at life!

Optimism is not a matter of ignoring difficulties and burying your head in the sand. Quite the opposite, in fact. Optimists identify problems more skillfully than pessimists. They see “challenges” rather than “threats.” Optimists are approach-oriented, walking toward their challenges, seeking advice and information about what their options are, and resolving, “Here is part of the problem I can and will do something about.” An optimist looks at negative situations and has a very different explanatory style, believing the situations are:

  • Temporary – “This won’t last forever.”
  • Local – “This is one situation. It isn’t everything.”
  • Impersonal – “This isn’t just my fault.”
  • Controllable – “There is something I can do.”

If you’re caught in a negativity cycle, you may want to adopt these last four statements as a bit of a mantra, keeping them nearby, and repeating them to yourself as you adjust your perspective. Psychologists have proven that optimism can be learned. Decide that you are going to be an optimist, especially when things are hard.

3. Change Your Focus

You have the ability to cultivate within yourself positive emotions. Rather than ruminating in your negative feelings, try replacing them with thoughts that fill your cup. Savor those good thoughts. Here are three ways you can do this:

  1. Remember a time when you felt positive. Rehearse it in your head. The best day of your life. Who was there? What was going on? What did it smell like? What did it taste like? What about it makes you feel grateful? Dwell in that memory.
  2. Act like you do when you feel positive. We might call this the “fake it ’till you make it” strategy. But seriously, when you’re feeling great, what would you be doing? Obviously, quarantine may impose limits, but there must be something you enjoy doing, even by yourself or just with your household. Blast some upbeat music. Declutter and organize a room. Mail a letter to someone you admire. Write down your goals for what you’ll do when quarantine is over. Act like you’re feeling good, and you might convince yourself to feel good. Seek out positive emotional situations for yourself.
  3. Work on being mindful of yourself and your feelings. Just because you feel something doesn’t mean you must become what you are feeling. Try to imagine your life from the perspective of someone floating a hundred feet above you. I might say about myself, “He’s a new parent, trying to adjust to a huge life-change on top of having to relearn entirely his people-oriented profession in a setting where he can’t be around people. No wonder he’s having a hard time.” You might say, “All of her routines have been disoriented and turned upside-down. She’s been away from her extended family for months now. She’s never been through anything like this before. No wonder she’s feeling that way.” Be merciful to yourself. Getting out of your head and looking at yourself objectively might help you to accept your feelings without becoming them. 

It amazes me how hundreds of research studies involving thousands of people in decades-long efforts at great cost will produce hard-won insights that more-or-less mirror what God has already given us through Scripture.

Here’s an example:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” 

Philippians 4:8

Hang in there and think positive!
Mark Adams

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