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General Conference

Learning in Distress

Confronting belief, purpose, and growth through the lens of mental health

Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Nicole Dominguez

After the 60 second earthquake on April 16, 1906, in San Francisco, California, it felt like the city would never recover. With thousands dead and infrastructure lost to the wreckage it seemed hopeless, however, it provided a great opportunity. Growing in the midst of distress can provide similar opportunities. Just as the earthquake unearthed fertile soil, and the ability to rebuild a better, more beautiful San Francisco, so we may be able to rebuild our faith, by confronting misunderstandings about our God, learning coping mechanisms, and claiming our purpose. In this episode of ANN InDepth, mental distress is discussed with Dr. Dee Knight, a doctor of clinical neuropsychology who has been running her own psychotherapy and consultation practice for over nine years, and Catalina Arevalo the host of Connected Adventist Podcast.

When challenges arise, we are quick to believe God failed us. He is either punishing us out of his unquenchable wrath or ignoring us in petty displeasure. Yet neither of these representations are even close to God’s true nature. This perception often stems from our compartmentalization of the bible: God is angry and destructive in the Old Testament and becomes clement and loving in the New Testament. Therefore, when the bad times roll in (as they often do) it is the Old Testament God who is punishing us for seemingly breaking complicated, never ending rules. Knight elaborates on the cultural impact of this belief, “The Barnard Group did research on that and 70 percent continue to see God as a punishing God, one who deals out punishment when we do wrong things, not necessarily a protective God.” Both Christians and non-Christian’s who hold this belief fail to recognize that it affects not only your relationship with God, but also your mental wellness. When God’s actions in both the New and Old Testament are seen in the context of omnipotent love, we are able to understand that our heavenly Father will never place us in a situation He has not equipped us for. It is only after this misconception is corrected that we can fully claim His promises and begin to grow in times of trial.

The pandemic has challenged everyone, yet the level of devastation is not unanimous. Knight is clear to specify that undergoing trauma and experiencing a difficult time are two different spaces. In addition, one devastating event experienced by many does not imply universal outcomes. We are unique, and processing will not be the same for everyone. Yet as Knight explains, post traumatic stress can parallel, or lead to, post traumatic growth. Depression and anxiety can result from trauma or genetics that cause neurobiology to alter our chemical balance and are maintained by our thought patterns. Unproductive thought patterns, such as intrusive thoughts, negative self talk, or suicidal thoughts are difficult, but not impossible, to break out of. Knight implores that psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and sometimes medication, are important to discover your individual path to healing. “That's just a tiny shift in your thinking, that's a tiny little strategy that you can use. Breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, there's lots of guided imagery, there are lots of ways to kind of bring the stress level down”. Yet another means to address mental disruption is to prioritize rest, and practice saying no, so you can say yes to the things God is calling you to. In being intentional about practicing methods of healing and surrender we can realize that we are more than victims of our circumstances and seeking God’s help will bring us back into fullness. 

For many, the pandemic put their lives on hold, altering their direction to such a degree that it prevented them from moving forward or adapting their purpose. As uprooting as the pandemic is, this does not suggest that our purpose is put on hold, waiting for it to be over in order to once again resume our course in kingdom work. Knight confirms, saying 

“You do not have to wait until this season is over. I actually encourage people that, whether it's pandemic or not, do not wait to fulfill whatever your purpose is every single day, wake up and remember that there is a purpose for why you woke up that day, even if it's that you're honing your skills for something that God is going to use you for later”.

We must not use the pandemic to stall our growth as individuals, whether in major ministry movements, or living in obedience in the small things such as extending kindness and grace to others or yourself. 

After a year of hearing platitudes about “adapting to a new normal”, such encouragement can feel more harmful than helpful. In adapting to where we are, it doesn't make us any less when we miss the forms of community Arevalo “it is crucial for human existence to have that interaction and to also have that physical interaction as well. We're just gonna have to really work through that and trust that God says He will provide for us on so many levels.”

We must extend grace, and recognize that we are all surviving a pandemic. We are all learning how to respond to a situation that is unprecedented and prompted by accelerated change.