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September 29, 2020

The key to emotional health in stressful times

I think we’d all agree 2020 has been a rough ride so far. So what’s the key to surviving times of real stress?

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Last week I received an encouraging email from a 90-year-old widow in our congregation. As usual, her note was brimming with joy––despite the fact she’s in a high-risk group, and hasn’t seen her children or grandchildren throughout this crisis. I asked her, “Etta Mae, how are you doing so well?”

Here’s part of her reply: “My physical being is much healthier than most 90-year-olds could expect. I’m still able to drive. This gives me the ability to go places and see things and still keep all the rules, such as the redwoods and West Cliff Drive. I love the ocean! I talk to people on the phone often… Surprising how just a few words can give me an opportunity to encourage someone. I like to look on the bright side always. I look for what good is coming out of all this mess.”

Looking for what’s good. Turns out that’s brilliant medicine. UC Davis psychologist Robert Emmons specializes in researching gratitude. He’s discovered that finding something—anything—for which to be grateful improves your mental, physical and relational well-being. He calls the habit of gratitude “emotional prosperity.” Dr. Emmons says that in giving thanks, you are actually creating new neural pathways in your brain that replace your anxious or obsessive thought habits. Since anxiety can lower immune responses, this is one of the healthiest habits you can establish.

The Bible hints at this when, in letters written to believers under severe persecution including the threat of death, it advises, “Be anxious for nothing, but pray about everything. With thankful hearts offer up your prayers and requests to God.” (Philippians 4:6). 

Thankfulness is more important now than ever. We’re hearing about increased “deaths of despair” as an effect of the Covid-19 crisis. A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality indicated that gratitude has been shown to decrease suicidal thoughts.

Gratitude has nothing to do with circumstances. Some of the most grateful people I’ve met have been frail and bed-ridden. For years I watched my own mother struggle with dementia. For most of her final two years we cared for her in our home. I watched daily as all her abilities slipped away, until even speaking was nearly impossible. I’ll admit I was bitter: Why should this beautiful woman, who had already had such a tough life, now experience this catastrophic illness?

Then I began contemplating the few words she could still say. At the end just three simple phrases were left in her vocabulary: “I love you.” “Thank you.” And often she would point to clouds or flowers and whisper, “Beautiful…” 

“I love you.” “Thank you.” “Beautiful.”

Not a bad collection of words to have left. If she could do that, I thought, so could I. Why not try to infuse my own negative inner dialogue with her three-phrase vocabulary? 

I began to practice noticing at least one beautiful thing a day. I discovered that when I looked for beauty, I inevitably found it. I started a habit of taking pictures of my daily beautiful thing, and as I did I whispered a prayer to God: “Beautiful! Thank you. I love you.” And Mom and I had some great three-phrase conversations as I shared those photos with her.

You know what I found? Gratitude is not living in denial of trouble. It’s what helps us cope with trouble.

So… what are you grateful for today? 

You get more than enough negative input. Discipline your mind to notice—and be grateful for—life’s beauties. Sir John Marks Templeton says each moment holds something for which we can be thankful: A sunny day. Dry clothes. Friends. Libraries. Pets. 

Oh, Etta Mae had one more thing for which she is grateful every day: “I often tell people that I do not remember a time when I did not know, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.’” 

I challenge you to find moments for this prayer every day: “Beautiful! Thank you. I love you.”

Rene Schlaepfer is senior pastor of Twin Lakes Church in Aptos, www.tlc.org

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