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The Tension Between

Counselor, Abbi Russo, shares how anxiety can stem from the tension between logic and emotion.

“I know the truth, that God is faithful. I know I shouldn’t worry about these things, but it’s still with me all the time. I’m so frustrated with myself, but I can’t seem to stop feeling this way.”

As a counselor, I hear this a lot from new clients. They feel a discrepancy between their logical mind (the part that says “I know what I believe and what I want to do”) and their unyielding emotions (the part that feels a certain way, regardless of how confident the logical mind is). That pull between these two uncooperative parts creates a kind of internal tension.

It reminds me of Romans 7:15 (NIV) that says, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” It’s like a rubber band pulling tighter and tighter, potentially moving a person from an uncomfortable level of stress to agonizing distress. People often feel completely stuck, and this tension can come out in the form of anxiety.

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

Romans 7:15 (NIV)

Anxiety is persistent, apprehensive expectation (aka “worry”) focused on one or more events, activities, or areas of life. That worry manifests in people in different ways: maybe it’s restlessness, feeling on edge or keyed up, maybe it’s difficulties with concentration or the mind going blank, irritability, muscle tension, fatigue, or difficulty sleeping—and to top it off, maybe the anxiety even leads to panic attacks.

So what’s going on here? How does the internal tension between logic and emotion create symptoms like these?

First, it might help to understand that emotion is experienced in a different part of the brain than the areas that generate logical, organized thought. Although emotion and thought are inter-connected, they’re separate processes and are activated differently. So it makes sense they require different processes to change.

Finding relief from this internal tension is sometimes as simple as slowing down the conversation enough to let those emotions process. Let them have a voice for a little while, before we try to hush them with all the logical reasons why they shouldn’t exist.

It’s that logic, trying to lord itself over emotion, that leads people to say things like, “I just need more tools to manage these worries so they don’t consume me like this.” In my own therapy journey (yes, counselors need therapy, too!), I went to counseling hoping to learn how to gain self-control over my anger. I thought if I could learn the right arguments, the right things to say to my intense feelings, then I would be able to subdue them into proper behavior.

Through this journey, I have learned emotions are friends to be embraced, instead of enemies to be subdued. For me, anger is usually a secondary emotion, or a hard exterior, that tries to protect deeper hurts and fears, like the fear of not being the mother, wife, or friend I’d like to be. It took time for me to learn to slow my thoughts down and listen with patience to my emotions to understand that.

However unexcitingly simple it may feel, the two most important “tools” I have learned (and am still learning), and often practice with my clients, are awareness and acceptance.

  • Awareness of the tension inside
  • Awareness of what my emotions are
  • Awareness of how anger often stems from anxiety-driven irritability
  • Awareness that quick fixes are usually not realisticways to process emotions

Increasing this awareness presents us with the opportunity to practice acceptance in place of making judgments.

  • Acceptance of those emotions (no matter how intense or “nonsensical” they may seem or how much I wish they were different)
  • Acceptance of needing to slow down, so emotions can be heard
  • Acceptance of the struggle to accept emotions, in general
  • Acceptance of a lack of control
  • Acceptance of needing to seek help from professionalcounseling if needed

And most significant of all—acceptance of the grace God offers. The gift of his grace is often the hardest to accept for ourselves, yet this is exactly the incredible gift he gives to each of us in Christ: grace and mercy, especially in the places where we are reluctant and even resistant to accept it for ourselves. This is the place God seems to show up, the place where he often chooses to invite us into a deeper understanding of grace: exactly in the middle of that tension.

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