Medical Diagnosis and Emotions


Our Guest Blogger today is Emily Duffey. Emily is a staff member at Reigning Grace Counseling Center. She is the friendly voice you hear when calling our office. She has a unique perspective on today's blog topic as you will see. 
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How do you respond when dealing with a life-altering medical diagnosis? The diagnosis might be of a loved one, a friend, or even yourself. You are experiencing extremely stressful circumstances, and feelings tend to go rampant in such moments. People struggle with worry and anxiety to sadness, hopelessness, depression, anger  . . . and the list goes on and on.  Fear becomes a way of life. Not only are feelings on high alert, but one’s physical reality has changed. There are many new things to acclimate to, and a new ‘normal’ to be established. Medicine becomes the routine, uncertainty of the future settles in, and you hang on to the fragments of life that you know.  It is a very uncertain and unsettling time.

I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at 18 years of age. I had just graduated high school and was headed to college. I was full of ideas and ambition, and MS was not a part of that plan. I struggled for many years with a progression of the MS and lived with a very real fear of extreme debilitation from the disease. My life described all of the emotions listed above, plus some. I quickly found myself living by my emotions, tossed back and forth from the uncertainty of the disease itself.

When dealing with uncertainty due to uncontrollable circumstances (like a medical diagnosis), it becomes very easy to live by one’s feelings. Your body might physically feel different from day to day, and your emotions certainly change on a whim. Often these coincide. After a while, the emotional turmoil becomes a comfort, a way of coping. Few tend to challenge someone who is “sick” for having an over-exaggerated response to situations. Sometimes the diagnosis itself becomes the justification for it— “I cannot help the way I respond, it is the ______ (insert disease—MS, for example—here). I am not responsible for my actions!”
Learning to step off the emotional roller coaster can be more unsettling then the ever changing unpredictability of emotional upheaval experienced day to day. The unpredictableness becomes a comfort, in a way. Responses such as manipulation become automatic responses.  When armed with a verifiable medical diagnosis that assists in an ever-swaying emotional state, how do you respond? Do medical illnesses have the upper hand? Are we held captive by our emotional state? What is our responsibility before God for emotional responses in the midst of medical diagnoses?

The fact is, we do not have any way to prove medically if the disease is changing the chemical makeup of the brain, causing unbalanced emotional responses. MRI and other medical tests are able to detect physical brain damage, and these changes very well may cause unbalanced emotional responses. However, there are a lot of variables here that are unable to be measured. It is the land of “what if?” Even in light of these things, does this absolve these individuals of their attitudes and actions before God?

Even if medically you cannot be held responsible for the emotions you experience due to physiological brain damage, you are still responsible for your response to those emotions.  Emotions are our responses to our thoughts—when thinking unbiblically we filter our thoughts through our corrupt thinking patterns, leading to emotional responses which result in sinful behaviors. These behaviors, unchecked by the Word of God, lead to rampant sin. This is living by your emotions.

The first step to correcting this problem is acknowledging your sin before the Lord. To simply acknowledge guilt before God for sinful thoughts and emotional responses is not enough, though—you must repent of your sin and seek to change these patters for the glory of God.  Repent of the sins that have become an integral part of your life–common examples of besetting sins in the life of one living by their emotions include unbelief, self-focus, self-worship, self-pity, a lack of self-control, and pride. Do you recognize any of these in yourself? Begin by identifying the sin and repenting before the Lord.

Scripture tells us to think about what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and the like (Phil. 4). We are also told to take every thought captive for the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). The next time you are struggling with over-emotional thinking, filter your thoughts through the Word of God. Determine if your thoughts are true, if they glorify God, are pleasing to Him, and bring Him honor. Seek God’s face—seek wisdom! James says, “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.  But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind” (Jas. 1:5–6). The emotionally unstable person is much like the one who doubts God, driven and tossed like the surf of the sea.

If you struggle with determining sinful thought patterns and find you need help, seek out a biblical counselor and ask her to help you identify these sins in your heart.  As you go about this process, search out what God has to say in His Word about these thoughts and the correct biblical response. The intent is to change the sinful behavior and replace them with God-honoring thoughts and behaviors.

A medical diagnosis does not determine who you are. The diagnosis is a part of God’s grand design and plan to conform and mold you into the image of Jesus Christ. Learning to react in a less emotionally charged state and think critically, logically and biblically can be hard—but, as a wise woman once told me, hard simply means hard. It does not mean bad. 2 Peter 1 says we have been given everything we need to be godly in order to live self-controlled lives. As a child of God, you have been given the ability to change! Lasting change begins in the heart—it begins with our thoughts!

(Philippians 4:8–9 NASB) -  Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

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