Q. Christmas is over. The weather is grey and I haven’t seen the sunshine in over a week. I know I’m supposed to be joyful and thankful but I just don’t feel it. What can I do to feel better when I’m feeling blue? Abby in MA
A. You’re not alone. Many people experience the winter blues. There’s even a name for it. It’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD for short. SAD is related to a lack of sunlight and an associated buildup of the sleep hormone, melatonin. Women are more prone to SAD than men are, and the most effective treatment is light therapy to simulate sunlight. If a trip to the Bahamas isn’t in the near future, make sure you get yourself out in the sunshine as much as possible, even if you just sit in front a sunny window. Regular exercise helps as well eating healthy. Remember, we are bodies. When our body doesn’t feel good (whether we’re sick, tired, hungry or lacking enough sunshine) our mood is affected. You cannot just will away negative feelings.
That said, you ask an important question. Can we change our feelings? God has created us with emotions and his commands to be joyful and thankful aren’t just intellectual exercises. He wants us to feel them. But how do we actually feel thankful and joyful when in reality, we’re feeling quite the opposite?
The first step is to look at what we are feeling and why and try to remedy it. Denial of our negative feelings is not the solution to upsetting emotions. In the physical realm, if I’m standing on a tack, ignoring my feelings or pretending to feel happy while in pain is foolish. It would be wiser to pay attention to the pain in my foot and see what the problem is.
On the other hand, complaining about my painful foot without taking action to remove the tack would also be foolish. Many times we are upset or angry or sad about something, but we are too afraid to speak up or to take action on our own behalf. We feel guilty, like it’s selfish to do so. However, it isn't wrong to take care of yourself, it is being a good steward.
However, the truth is we cannot fix everything that is wrong in our life. Sometimes we’re in an unhappy marriage or job and for now, that’s just the way it is. Most of us face some discomfort or pain. Therefore how do we feel thankful and joyful while in the midst?
Let me share with you a few things to try. First, distract yourself for a bit from your problems or pain. Help someone else who has a specific need. Volunteer your time to a worthy cause. Do something fun. Cancer patients, for example, feel better while watching a funny movie or hugging their pet. The apostle Paul was well used to suffering but he counsels us instead of dwelling on what's wrong, to think on things that are true, good, right and lovely, for he knows that what we focus our mind on, affect s us emotionally (see Philippians 4:6-8 and Psalm 55:2). Intentionally look for things you can be thankful for during the winter blues or while in a difficult situation.
Second, practice the opposite virtue. In other words, if you’re feeling crabby or impatient, intentionally slow down and be generous and giving. If you're feeling angry or irritable, practice compassion and extend grace toward those who are irritating you. Now here is the catch. You have to want to. It does no good to fake it. You may not feel it at first, but you have to want to feel it.
Lastly but not least, tune into the practice of the Presence of God. God is always with us, but our awareness of him is lacking. If we were more aware of his presence, we would feel joyful for he tells us in his presence is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11). Look for God in the little things. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your spiritual eyes so that you may see how he helps you throughout your day. Those are things to be thankful for. Sadly, most of the time, we just don’t notice.
Be intentional about making these changes, even when you don’t feel like it. They can make a big difference.