What is more contagious than COVID-19? Our emotions. Our emotional state is readily “caught” by others. Dogs and horses begin feeling what we’re feeling right away. So do children. They are all experts at reading body language.
Children don’t do what their parents say, they do what we do and what they observe about us. So we have a responsibility to guard what we communicate to them by our behavior and emotional state. If they sense panic or rage or despair in us or animosity between their parents, they will feel extremely nervous and unsafe.
Now that we are in the midst of a severe health crisis and prolonged financial insecurity, frustration is apt to escalate. This crisis will end, but in the meantime, waves of negativity will cover large segments of our society like a funeral pall. With stay-at-home isolation and loss of income, mental health will suffer and domestic abuse will surely rise. A division of Health and Human Services reports that Americans seeking help for emotional stress increased by 900% in March.
So, let’s think about what can help our mental and emotional health.
It’s normal to feel mad, sad, or scared from time to time – those feelings serve important purposes. The capacity for emotions like fear, anger, sadness, and joy are valuable gifts of God for us to experience and express. After all, God Himself exhibits anger and sadness many times in the Bible. God doesn’t lose His temper. He uses it to accomplish salutary purposes. Often our emotions are not used in the right way and for the right purpose. Consider the counsel of St. James: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry; for human anger does not accomplish the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)
Our emotions reveal important things about us. Negative feelings usually mean some important need or expectation is NOT being met – an alarm is going off! Positive feelings usually mean some important need or expectation is being met – joyful bells are ringing!
Thoughts may be incorrect, judgments may be unfair, behavior may be destructive, but feelings in themselves are neither right or wrong. However, how we manage and express those feelings can be very wrong.
Our emotions are our first-alert system. Based on zillions of previous experiences stored in our unconscious brain, our emotions warn us that maybe someone or something is offensive and threatening or signal that someone or something is friendly and affirming. But this quick reaction may not be reliable in making decisions about what to say or do about it before our rational brain reviews and verifies it.
Emotions come out of one part of our brain. Another part of our brain manages and regulates them. When our emotional volume is up, our thinking volume is down. That’s why surgeons do not operate on their own family members. So it’s important to calm our emotions before saying or doing something we’ll regret. Hit the pause button before reacting. And please deal with what’s causing a negative emotion when it’s a 2 or 3 in intensity, and don’t wait until it’s a 9 or 10 when your rational thinking is impaired. Out of control anger and animosity only give the Devil a foothold (Ephesians 4:27).
No matter how negative an emotion is, it can and must be expressed respectfully. Let’s say I’m equally angry at two different people. Toward one I have an attitude of revenge; toward the other I have an attitude of forgiveness. You see, the anger is not wrong. It’s the resulting attitude and action that may be right or wrong. Don’t confuse emotional feelings with attitudes, which are basically states of mind, not emotion—decisions I make, acts of the will.
Hate, for example, is not really a feeling; hate is something I decide to do as a result of hurt, anger or fear. I could decide to love and forgive instead. That’s why the Bible says, “If you become angry, don’t let your anger lead you to sin.” (Psalm 4:4 & Ephesians 4:26)
Perhaps the worst thing we can do with an intense negative emotion is to deny it and refuse to share it with anyone, but just bottle it up inside until it festers into very bad attitudes or finally explodes into very bad behavior.
When we recognize and acknowledge our feelings and choose to share them constructively with one another, we escape their control over us. Let your emotions school you, not rule you. Let them teach you something about yourself and your needs, but not hijack your behavior into saying or doing something stupid or nasty. Let your feelings be indicators of your needs, not dictators of your behavior.
Powerful emotions? Don’t stuff ‘em. Or let ‘em explode! Don’t take them out on one another. Take a time out, and take them to the Lord in prayer: “Cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for you.” (I Peter 5:7)
Out of control feelings? Walk ‘em out. Talk ‘em out. Slow down, sit down, write ‘em down. Those are proven ways to moderate strong feelings. Learning how to name our emotions and describe them accurately to ourselves and others is indeed central to effective communication and maintaining healthy relationships. Even in the midst of crises.
Let peace, patience, forbearance, resilience, contentment, gratitude, gentleness, affection, kindness, and joy be the contagious emotions and attitudes we exhibit among our family, friends, and enemies. Faith, hope, and love are extremely contagious. Praise God!
When you and I are feeling sorry for ourselves because of being confined in our homes like prisoners, it’s time to remember the Apostle Paul and what it was like for him, languishing in a miserable Roman dungeon. Nevertheless, he writes: “As a prisoner for the Lord, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3)
Amen, brother Paul!
~ Ed & Emily Kast