Christian Counseling: Coping With Life's Problems

Jesus said, "'In the world you will have tribulation,'" (John 16:33) and "'Each day has enough trouble of its own'" (Matthew 6:34). Much to our displeasure, every life has its share of problems. We do our best to take care of them through prevention, remediation, and sometimes employing defense mechanisms. 

Generally speaking, defense mechanisms (denial, suppression, projection, reaction formation, sublimation, some laughter, etc.) are necessary, especially early in life when children are not yet sophisticated enough to use other means to help themselves. Defense mechanisms are limiting due to their sole aim of cutting off threatening thoughts and feelings and rendering them unconscious. If used too frequently or one relies primarily on one or two of them to manage most all problems of life, they become maladaptive and prevent wounded people from adjusting to and/or modifying or eliminating them.

A better way to deal with the tough problems of life is through coping strategies--using actions and/or thoughts to modify problems and/or one's reaction to problems. Problem-focused coping attempts to alter the problem or stressor itself, while emotion-focused coping aims at modifying one's response to the problem. When we can't modify or eliminate a problem, such as grief over the loss of a loved one, we can shift our strategy to managing our reaction (thoughts and feelings) to the loss. One approach finding popularity and success over life's problems is mindfulness. Briefly, it is developing awareness and coming to acceptance of "what is" in the here-and-now, within a person and in the environment.

Mindfulness has successfully been applied to smoking cessation.  One study looked at the effectiveness of mindfulness, which encouraged participants not to avoid but to be aware and accept their addiction, cravings, withdrawal symptoms and mood fluctuations while attempting to quit smoking. To use this approach takes courage for one must face the problem and one's reactions. At the end of the four week treatment 36% of this group stopped smoking compared to 15% who participated in a treatment of behavior modification, stress reduction and relapse avoidance. This held up after 17 weeks--31% abstinence verses 6%.1

Many people want to avoid troubling feelings and thoughts and attempt to do so through defense mechanisms and by trying to get rid of the problem altogether. Some fear a relapse or the loss of control by facing their strong feelings. Here, caution should be exercised, but fear should not rule. The research suggests many benefit from looking within themselves, managing their thoughts and feelings and not permitting fear to dictate an avoidant approach. This is what Jesus did throughout His life. He knew He was going to die and how it was to happen. He faced His thoughts and feelings many times over, as we see, for example, in His Garden prayers before His arrest.

Jesus didn't only say, "'In the world you have tribulation,'" He also said in that same verse that the disciples could have His peace and He supported them to "take courage [face life's problems]; I have overcome (Greek-conquered) the world.'" In verse 32 Jesus said He and His disciples (past and, by implication, present) are not alone, the Father is with Him and us, always. 1 John 5:4,5 tell us what overcomes the world (and tribulation)--courageous faith, to which we can add hope in such things as knowing all problems and pain will one day cease.   

1 Miller, Michael Craig, M.D, Editor. Mindfulness training helps people quit smoking. Harvard Mental Health Newsletter. January 2012: Vol.28, No. 7, p. 7.

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