When Christmas isn’t very merry

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Emotions are strange.

We all experience them at different levels of intensity.  I’m sure that in a way our experience of each is slightly unique from one another, too.

Sometimes we have a decent degree of control over how we feel while at other times we’re seemingly helpless.

As is the case with many holidays, Christmas isn’t a very happy time for many of us for different reasons.

Some of us grieve the loss of loved ones.  Some of us grieve not having loved ones.  Some of us are struggling with any of a number of other issues.

As someone who feels emotions intensely, I’m familiar with being caught in a cycle of despair.  It stinks to feel like you are at the mercy of your sadness and to feel like there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

As we know, despair can be so all-consuming and crippling that it leads some people tragically to take their own life in order to stop the pain.

Stress unexpectedly got to me this morning as I was at church, of all places.  The accumulation of several weeks’ and months’ worth of little things just for whatever reason struck me odd while in the worship service, and I had what I can label as a very minor panic attack while sitting in my seat.

These suck for a variety of reasons, and thank God it was minor.  But regardless of the intensity, the same general feelings accompany them: loss of hope (as in, you see no way out of the present crises you think you’re in), loss of meaning, and an immediate disassociation with everyone and everything around you.

By the grace of God the moment remained minor as I was able to apply some techniques I’ve learned over many years of dealing with similar emotions, and also thankfully this is the first time I’ve had any form of a panic attack in many, many years.

Work has been incredibly stressful lately with several important and complicated projects ongoing.  My finances took an expected but not yet prepared for hit.  And some general existential angst that sometimes floats in the back of my mind came to the forefront.

The combination, somehow, made me despair and induced the sudden panic.  The unfortunate thing about panic attacks is, while you’re in the midst of one, you have no idea whether it will remain minor or escalate.

Some general truths about emotions, though, also apply to these situations.

In reality, emotions are not our masters, despite appearances.  True, we can’t always immediately change how we feel at the flip of a switch, but through the guidance of our will (our intentional thoughts, our actions, and the beliefs we reinforce to ourselves) we can direct the eventual path of our emotions.

Often this process can take a really long time before our emotions actually respond.  When grieving the loss of a loved one, for example, sadness is an expected and healthy emotion to allow yourself to experience for a time, but it can sometimes run unchecked and overtake our lives.

Emotions are able to gain control over our inner lives ultimately because of the thoughts we choose to entertain.  Sadness over a loved ones’ passing can turn into debilitating depression if we continue to harbor thoughts about how we’ll never be able to get over their loss or if we choose to focus on how much we will miss them instead of how thankful we are to have had them in our lives.

In my case this morning in our church service, I was helped by a physical action – the necessity of having to lead our small congregation in worship.  As easy as it would have been to remain in my shell and not do what I was supposed to, I made a decision to do it anyway.

Actively doing something often helps when we are feeling down, though of course that is also the hardest time to make yourself do something.  The heavy temptation is usually to withdraw into yourself.

All the more better when in worship the action of doing something brings glory to God and necessarily pulls attention away from the self.  Focusing on others, especially on God, always helps in times of depression.

The deep trust I am slowly but hopefully building in God is the bedrock idea that I hold onto through all life’s difficult circumstances and feelings.  In some ways, this trust is irrational, because it can actively ignore the current events of life and instead chooses that God will work things out for ultimately our good and His glory – even if, as sometimes does happen in extreme cases, the result is death.

I have struggled with trusting God for my good most of my life, and it’s hard because our circumstances can scream at us that God doesn’t care.  I’ve had many questions that have intellectually remained unanswered but have been addressed in my heart.

There are a lot of methods involved in learning to trust God but, in the end, the foundation is built on an action of the will: choosing to trust.  Often stubbornly; frequently counter-intuitively.  It’s a deep trust that everything is going to be OK – even if the panic never subsides, even if despair does stay with me the remainder of my days (it won’t, but the depth of the trust has to go to that level).

If you find yourself in sadness this Christmas season, trust that things will work out.  Begin moving your will toward God’s truths and most importantly toward accepting just how much He is in love with you.  Tell the lies that parade through your mind as negative or condemning thoughts to be silent and command their departure to God in the name of Christ.

You are not helpless nor controlled by your emotions.  You will come through a season of sadness if you ask God to empower you to keep your will fixed on Him and His love for you.

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