An excerpt from my latest book, Learning to S.M.I.L.E. Again: 5 Simple Steps Toward Joy. For more specific examples of how to apply this mental high method, scroll down and enjoy the Isolate the Issue photo gallery!
For me, Isolating the Issue has been about being completely honest with myself in three different ways. First, I need to recognize that sometimes my crying, yelling, and overreacting aren’t due to anything that’s currently happening. It’s because of an underlying issue. My emotional reaction could be related to what I’m dealing with at the moment. I might be yelling because of all the red lights I’m getting as I drive home or crying because I burned dinner again. But my extreme reaction could also mean I’m deeply hurting about something else entirely unrelated to the present issue. Since I haven’t dealt with it yet, the related feelings are building pressure, bubbling, and bursting up through the surface. Before I hurt anyone and create unnecessary collateral damage, I need to acknowledge the issue and deal with it.
I’ve touched on this before, but I’d like to use this chapter to walk through an example of how I do this, step by step. For example, maybe I’m discouraged while I’m paying the bills because money is tight. The problem I’m facing is that there’s not enough cash to pay the bills. If I hear my kids fighting and I explode at them, I need to recognize where my frustration is coming from. Of course, I don’t want them fighting. But I’m not really overwhelmed by their arguing. That’s just the last straw. The issue is the finances. That’s what prompted the frustration and yelling. This is just one example, but it shows how the reaction isn’t always related to what seemed to trigger it. There’s usually an underlying problem that needs to be addressed besides the ones we see. Recognizing this helps me separate my bigger problems from the little hiccups of life. Doing that allows me to find joy in what I still can, instead of thinking that everything is going wrong. Making a distinction between actual issues and just minor, everyday problems also helps me process and work toward resolving the larger issues that aren’t bringing me any joy yet.
Which brings me to the next step. Once you realize the deeper issues you’re struggling with, recognize what you can do about it. I’m not saying this part is easy but at least it involves action, and action means opportunity. Opportunity can be a great motivator to get us moving, involved, and hopeful again. For the example I used previously, I tried to be preventative. I made sure I didn’t regularly work on paying bills when my kids were awake and playing near me. If I did have to do so unexpectedly, I’d repeat in my mind, “It’s not their fault.” Or, “This too shall pass.” Or maybe, “We’re doing better than before.” I also apologized to them if I did get
overwhelmed and then became overly sensitive to their noise. I let them know they were not the reason I was being so emotional.
I also prayed for guidance in managing our finances. That was something I could do any day, any moment. I looked at job posts. I prayed about applying for them. I considered different schedules and babysitting options. I looked at our budget to see where we could cut expenses. I called companies to see if I could get our fees or interest rates lowered. We changed phone plans. We did more walking instead of driving. We downsized a vehicle. We cancelled memberships and subscriptions. We did everything we could to help minimize and solve the problem.
All these efforts helped toward resolving the issue and made me feel empowered. I wasn’t helpless! But sometimes, that isn’t enough. For example, in this case, it wasn’t. When I was the most depressed, we were also in our worst state financially. It kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? I had doctors telling me I needed to make time for myself, go out more, and do fun things.
However, most of this required money, so I felt even more discouraged about our situation. At the very minimum, I needed to pay the babysitter who would be watching my kids while I went to therapy or took a break. I couldn’t trade-sit because I didn’t have the emotional stability to watch other people’s kids in addition to my own. I also didn’t feel like I had the emotional stability to hold down a job in order to pay for the extra expenses. I wanted so badly to change my circumstances, but until my depression was better I didn’t see how I could work and help our family financially.
This was when I had to apply the third step of Isolate the Issue. I had to let go. I had to let go of the stress and anxiety for those things I couldn’t control. I had to let go and stop trying to force recovery. Yes, I could work each day on improving my mood and getting out of the deep dungeon of
depression. But I couldn’t make a complete, total recovery immediately. It would take some time to establish constant mental health again. I couldn’t rush the process of balancing chemical imbalances. I may only have a few highlights of happiness a day. I had to let go and accept that. Because of my health, I would not be working right away. For now, my efforts to pinch pennies and stretch our budget was the best I could do. I needed to believe those efforts were good enough and let go of my own unrealistic expectations.
They weren’t helping. My need to fix everything immediately was just making me feel more broken. Letting go meant letting go of the worry, stress, and fear. It meant accepting peace.
During the hardest months of suffering from PTSD, I realized I wasn’t only carrying my own burdens. I recognized I was trying to carry other people’s problems too, all by myself. The challenges my kids were going through, issues other family members were struggling with, and even the political unrest in my community were threatening my joy as I worried and wondered about things I had no control over. Stress affects all parts of us, inside and out. By carrying the pain of my own challenges and those of the people and world that surrounded me, I was being negatively affected mentally, emotionally, and physically. My shoulder and neck muscles felt like someone had wound a knob in my back, tightening them until I could barely move. Emotionally, I overreacted over the littlest things. I lacked energy or motivation to do the most basic tasks. I was not the person I was meant to be.
I was trying to be faithful, so why wasn’t I receiving the help I needed? Why was life getting harder? I often found myself thinking about Matthew 11:28–30:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
What was wrong? Wasn’t I trying? Yes, in a way. I had prayed for help from God. I had said I wanted His comfort. But I wasn’t really accepting it. I was still thinking about my challenges most of the time. I was still dwelling on them and hoping things would change to be the way I wanted them. I wasn’t finding joy because I was having unrealistic expectations. So, I chose to turn to my Heavenly Father in a different way.
I continued to try to change what I could in my mind by learning more about PTSD and attending a support group for others in my situation. It was there that I heard someone give examples of visualizations they had used to help them fight their anxiety. It sounded foreign to me and kind of weird, but this person seemed a lot happier. Maybe imagining some specific, meaningful images could help me too. As I thought about the triggers I faced and the anxiety they gave me, I knew I had to let them go. The pain I felt from them was not going to disappear if I held onto memories. That was like trying to hold onto a wild animal without getting bitten—not likely. The reminders of trauma were so painful that I was even thinking of hurting myself again. I didn’t want to cut myself or end my life. I’d come so far from that dark place. However, I also didn’t want to keep feeling these attacks of dread. It was time for a change. I decided to explore solutions to this issue with a more open mind.
I told God I was letting go. I was giving this burden to Him to carry for me. It would be wonderful if He would heal it. I had prayed for healing from mental illness for years, but it still hadn’t come. At this point, a complete cure didn’t seem to be His will. I was accepting that, but I also knew I wasn’t meant to bear this burden of emotional anguish alone. I knew this weight could be made “light” with His help. I had tried sharing it but that wasn’t working. The hurt still felt immense and heavy. Now I was going to turn it over completely to Him. I was going to Isolate the Issue, and let it go. It wasn’t mine to deal with anymore. From then on, every time I saw something that brought back a painful memory I would visualize a giant boulder in that place instead. Then I would think the words, “It’s not my burden.” I wouldn’t allow myself to pick it up mentally. Even in my mind, those boulders were too heavy to lift! I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t carry that stress along with everything else I needed remember as a wife and mother. I wouldn’t keep looking at what triggered pain. I would just picture a rock there instead for the Lord to deal with and then walk away. He would always be strong enough to bear my burden, so I did not need to take it on. He WANTED to carry it for me. I just needed to let it go and let Him. The relief was amazing. I really didn’t have to worry about issues that weren’t mine to fix. If I didn’t let myself think about them and mentally pick up those boulders, I felt lighter and freer. It’s taken practice, but I still use this method to help me leave behind and move on from certain issues. Some are my own flaws or hang-ups. Some are other family members’ or friends’ problems. I’m a caring person, so when I learn that a loved one is struggling I want to do all I can to help them. My mind starts racing with ideas of how I can lift their burden. Sometimes though, I take on too much.
While I should definitely try to help others, the truth is I can’t do everything. I need the Lord’s help. So, I try to take a step back and keep things in perspective. I can pray for them. I can probably do some service for them by visiting them, taking a meal, or taking them out for some dessert and fun conversation. But my worrying doesn’t help them. My attempt to control what happens to them doesn’t help either. Often, it’s their burden to handle with the help of the Lord or theirs to lay at His feet. Either way, it’s not my problem to fix.
In my situation, I wanted to change the past. I wanted to go back and make it so the trauma had never happened. I had to let that expectation go. I also wanted to completely forget the memory of the pain. I had to let go of that desire too. Unless I had my brain wiped clean somehow, I was going to remember. That’s part of this human experience and making sure we learn from what we go through. However, the Lord is merciful and capable of anything, and now many of those painful memories have almost disappeared. They are rarely triggered. They are practically gone.
But it only happened on God’s timetable, once I stopped dwelling on the issues. I had to let go and say in my heart, “Let Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10). Now I barely remember any of the trauma. The pain of it is dim. It feels like a random, unimportant tidbit in a history book that doesn’t define me and isn’t at all relevant to my current life. And, do you know what? That’s enough. I’m safe now. I don’t have intense panic attacks anymore. Once I recognized that that was enough healing, forgetting the pain even if I didn’t forget the event, then I found peace and joy again.
On the days when I saw triggers of my problems everywhere, all those boulders I thought I was meant to carry, I stopped thinking about them and gave them to God. Instead of focusing on them, festering, and getting frustrated, I used all my strength to turn away and leave those problems for His mighty power. I thought to myself, “It’s not my burden.” Then, I let it go. I filled my head with love and hope instead, through music, mantras, and good memories. It hasn’t been easy. I still work on being humbler and relying on God more. I work on it every day. I’ve found this is the only answer to some of life’s burdens. We can’t change it. We can’t fix it. We can only change how we look at it and then let God fix us.
Thinking, “It’s not my burden,” has helped me realize I can go on living a happy life even with a challenging past, because no matter how painful memories might be, I don’t have to carry that pain. Jesus Christ atoned for all the pains of the world. There are times we share the yoke and other times, I believe, when all he asks us to do is let him pull on that part of the journey. We’re still yoked with him, but he’s doing the heavy lifting. Again, my PTSD isn’t completely gone, but it’s faded. That is my miracle of healing. It wasn’t the miracle I prayed for, but it was the miracle I needed.
I can’t carry everyone’s burden, and it’s not my job to do so. I can’t even carry all of my own burdens, so why should I think I can carry everyone else’s? But I don’t need to. Through the support of God and the strength of Christ, I can carry all I need to and then step away from the rest. When I Isolate the Issue and let it go to the Lord, my burden really is made “light.” So, don’t be afraid to let go and make room for something better. Make room for goodness. Make room for peace. Make room for joy, forgiveness, and optimism. Once you do let go, you’ll find your mind, heart, and soul lighter. And that yoke, the yoke of joy, truly is light.
(To read more order Learning to S.M.I.L.E. Again: 5 Simple Steps Toward Joy by clicking here.)
Isolate the Issue Photo Gallery