Battling the foes of emotional and cognitive distress
Published on: 12-29-2023
Hebrews 11 lists Bible heroes commended by God—people of faith. What does it mean to be a person of faith? Were they flawless? fearless? “By faith,” did they avoid all physical adversities,1 emotional turmoil,2 and cognitive distress?3 No, as a quick review of their lives reveals.
Yet God praises them in the faith chapter; describes them as having a heart like His; collaborates with them in a celebration of their faithfulness while they simultaneously faced daily unrelenting, unrelieved emotional turmoil, cognitive distress, and maladaptive behaviors. Similarly, Jesus indicates those who die in tragic accidents are no more sinful than anyone else (Luke 13:4), and rain (both physical and metaphorical) falls on the just and the unjust. In a world embroiled in the great controversy’s pull to chaos, time and chance bring distress to everyone (Eccl. 9:11). There is no promise, this side of heaven, that physical adversity, emotional turmoil, and cognitive distress bypass the faithful.
So what are the causes of mental health distress? Living in a world hundreds of generations away from God’s perfectly ordered creation puts us all in a battleground in which three major factors are behind mental health distress: long-standing factors, triggers, and maintaining factors.
Long-standing factors may be genetic or inborn, or may occur early in life. Although they may cause distress directly, they often just put one at risk for developing distress. An example of a physical long-standing factor is being seven feet tall—it does not cause concussions, but it puts one at risk for concussions in a society in which doors are typically six feet eight inches high.
Triggers are events occurring just before the onset of distress. A psychological trigger for someone with a reactive temperament might be the unexpected death of a close friend, which could cause broad emotional distress leading to worries about the death of other loved ones, potential illnesses, or potential financial crises.
Maintaining factors are events that keep the distress going. A psychological maintaining factor might be skipping work whenever one worries about possibly being judged, not fitting in, or making social blunders at work. When work is skipped, the reduction in immediate distress is attributed to avoiding work; so one avoids work more and more when distressed, which maintains anxiety.
God created emotions to strongly alert us about unmet needs. Emotions do not tell us how to the solve the problem, but they do signal a problem and provide energy. Neglecting the signal exacerbates distress.
When a person of faith experiences cognitive distress and emotional turmoil, God sometimes resolves the issue miraculously, but these quick resolutions are not promised. Rather, God declared that being alone is not good, and He provided for a supportive community of individuals who take care of others with wisdom, knowledge, and discernment for the healing of those who are distressed (Eph. 4:11, 12; 1 Cor. 12:7-11).
These helpers often employ modes of solutions, including internal change, such as learning something new or shifting to a different skill; external change, such as implementing medication, exercise, and diet to help one’s body and chemicals get back to ideal functioning; managing, which includes developing mental and emotional skills for managing chronic distress (e.g., developing humor related to the challenge, adjusting expectations, or regularly talking to supportive people about the difficulty).
Earth is the battleground of the great controversy. Even when people of faith are on the winning side, we will experience distress until God brings the battle to the final end. Until then, be a safe support for yourself and those who are under the siege of emotional turmoil and cognitive distress.4
1 For this article, my working definition of physical adversity is a bodily state interfering with optimal functioning. This working definition describes the opposite end of the continuum of the physical element of the World Health Organization’s definition of health: “a state of complete physical . . . well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (https://www.who.int/about/governance/constitution).
2 For this article, my working definition of emotional turmoil is a psychologically generated physiological state creating behavioral urges and that interferes with optimal functioning. This working definition builds off the American Psychological Association’s definition of emotions: “conscious mental reactions . . . subjectively experienced as strong feelings . . . typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body” (https://www.apa.org/topics/emotions).
3 For this article, my working definition of cognitive distress is a mental state that interferes with optimal functioning in which one’s thoughts lead one to anticipate undesirable outcomes. This working definition builds off the American Psychological Association’s definition of distress: “stress that results from being overwhelmed by demands, losses, or perceived threats. It has a detrimental effect by generating physical and psychological maladaptation” (https://dictionary.apa.org/distress and cf. https://dictionary.apa.org/stress).
4 See Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890, 1908), p. 218.
Ron Coffen is a licensed psychologist and professor at Andrews University and director of the Community Counseling Center, which provides services with the compassion and care of Christ.
Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash