[Editor’s Note: Everyone has mental health experiences on the spectrum between thriving and struggling. Perhaps you (or a friend) are in a season where you need extra mental, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical support. In this #mentalhealth series we want to balance personal experience/story with input from mental health and medical professionals. We want to also explore, “How does our faith in Jesus relate to our mental health?” Our desire is to support you as you work towards mental well-being. 

If you are considering hurting yourself or someone else, or you know someone who is, please contact a mental health emergency hotline. If you need urgent counselling support, Kids Help Phone is also available for young adults up to age 29 for phone calls, Facebook Messenger, or texting conversations.

Today we’re chatting with Monique Smith, B.A., M.S.W., R.S.W. Monique specializes in counselling clients from age five to twenty-five. Monique has a passion for teaching her young clients how the brain works and how decisions are made. She is known for her creative counselling style and her passion for teaching mental health skills. In addition to counselling, Monique works as a cross-country ski instructor, canoe instructor, and freelance photographer. She’s a part-time sports chaplain with Athletes in Action, working with university and national level wrestlers. A staff member of Power to Change – Students recorded this interview.] 

Power to Change – Students: What is the role of emotions in decision-making?

Monique Smith: It’s really important to understand the role of the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system in the brain. Basically, the prefrontal cortex is our thinking brain. And the limbic system is our emotional no-thinking brain. If something sets off a fear response, our brain essentially cuts off our ability to think and we go into the fight, flight, or freeze response. For example, let’s say I hear someone gossiping about me. That gossip is causing me to have the same reaction as if a bear is in the room. In fact, I might even notice that my heart is racing, I might hold my breath, my breath may quicken, or I may notice a change in my body temperature to either cold or hot. Often, we act like the bear is in the room, even though the bear isn’t there. Those words (that aren’t actually dangerous) feel dangerous.

If I’m a fighter, I’m going to yell or scream or try to pick a fight. If I’m a flighter, I’m gonna say, “Why bother with this? Everybody’s a bunch of backstabbers” and I will isolate myself from the world. And if I’m a freezer, I’m like a deer in the headlights. I stand there and say nothing. Because I’ve triggered the “fear” emotion, this results in me acting out of my emotional no-thinking brain. I’m reacting from a purely instinctual, reactionary, no-thinking response. 

A lot of times, what happens is we have our perceived threat. If it triggers fear, we go into a fear-based response. In doing so, we create these pathways called neural pathways. We take the path that brings us pleasure. And the more and more we take the path, the more and more it gets packed down. It’s similar to a ski hill. If you are a beginner, you will take the easiest pathway. If you are more advanced, you’ll take a harder pathway And if you like adrenaline, you’ll go on the most extreme runs. In the same way, we often take the pathway that gives us the most short-term pleasure, even if this pathway may not be good for us in the long term.

Often the problem is, especially in Christianity, we like to focus on the prefrontal cortex––the fact-based, rational, decision part of our brain and say things like, “Just trust Jesus”, or “Jesus is the answer.” But this is dangerous because it removes our God-given emotions from the equation. As Peter Scazzero says,

“Ignoring our emotions is turning our back on reality. Listening to our emotions ushers us into reality. And reality is where we meet God… Emotions are the language of the soul. They are the cry that gives the heart a voice.” (Emotionally Healthy Spirituality)

And the reality is, that is where we meet God. Emotions are the language of the soul, the other cry that gives the heart a voice. And so I think there’s this important piece in that, in trying to find balance.

P2C-S: What does it look like to balance the thinking and emotional parts of our brains?

Monique: There’s a therapist by the name of Marsha Linehan who talks about the concept of the wise mind.

FACT + EMOTION = the wise mind. What I think happens in a church is: we tend to sit in the facts. So “Jesus is the answer. Just trust Jesus.” But it ignores that we need to live in the intersecting piece of the wise mind.

If you think about examples from the Bible, the shortest verse is “Jesus wept,” right? Okay, so there’s the emotional mind, but something weird is going on. Jesus is weeping, even though, in his reasonable mind, he knows that he’s just going to raise Lazarus from the dead. So even though Jesus knew that he could and would raise Lazarus from the dead, he also created space for his emotions. This example teaches us how to be in the wise mind. 

There are some really interesting examples in the Bible that talk about being in this wise mind and balancing emotions and facts. 

P2C-S: If someone tends to rely on their emotions a lot, how can they put the wise mind into action? 

Monique: So I believe as Christians, first of all, we should have an understanding not only for others, but also for ourselves. There are some simple skills we can do. The STRONG skills are a great way for healthy living:

S stands for sleep. 

T stands for taking the advice of professionals.

R for resisting drugs and alcohol. 

O is for one fun or competent thing a day.

N is for nutrition.

G is for getting exercise. 

When we practise the strong skills, we’re more likely to access that prefrontal cortex, thinking brain, and we’re less likely to act out of those fight-flight-freeze reactions and can sit in the wise mind.

P2C-S: Are there any ways that we can learn about our emotions?

Monique: I would recommend reading Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Pete Scazzero. That’s a great way to understand the role of emotions. Also, seeing a counsellor could be preventative along with helping you react and respond to challenges. You don’t need to see a counsellor after something bad has happened, you can get the skills before life hits you over the head to teach you a lesson!

As a wilderness first-aid instructor. I’ve taken courses to help me be aware of the things that could happen in the backcountry. In the same way, there are mental first-aid courses that you can take. There are suicide prevention courses you can take. So I think just reading, engaging in counselling, even as a preventative piece, or just an awareness that we all have things to work on. And taking courses can be a great way to enter into a holistic awareness of healthy living.

P2C-S: What’s one lesson about emotions that lots of Christians don’t know?

Monique: I think the importance of validating both your emotions and others’ emotions. Even if you don’t understand them. Validating isn’t justifying. So, for example, if you see a little kid crying because they want candy. You validate and say, “I see that you’re upset. I hear that you’re upset, however, it’s getting close to dinner time. And so we will have to wait for another time.” That would be validating the emotion instead of saying, “Stop crying! No, you can’t have any candy before supper!” In fact, in the second response, you’ve probably escalated the issue. When we acknowledge emotions, we can de-escalate certain situations. These are skills that we can learn, not only as professionals but as everyday individuals. 

For example, maybe you are having an argument with someone. You may say, “I see that you are angry.” Or better yet, put it in a question form. A lot of times we make statements, rather than asking questions. And if you think about it, who is a master question-asker? In the Bible, how many questions was Jesus asked? 183. Well, how many did he answer? Only 3! Instead, he asked 306 questions in return! Jesus sets an example of being good question-askers! 

So first of all, we need to validate and then ask good questions to help us better understand and empathize with people, instead of saying, “That’s inappropriate,” or “That’s not okay.” Or shutting down emotions. And then ask good questions to help assess. However, remember, you’re not a therapist. Know your limitations, because sometimes when we ask good questions, it can trigger something else. What might be presenting might have little to do with the current situation, and the individual may need some counselling 

I would also add: I think as Christians, especially those working in ministry, because they believe that Jesus is the answer, they’re gonna believe that they have the solution. And then try to counsel everybody who thinks differently from them with a somewhat cliché answer, “Well, if you just trust Jesus, you would be happy and you wouldn’t be depressed/need those antidepressants.” But if someone has cancer, we wouldn’t say, “Oh, well, we should just pray for healing, don’t bother going to the doctor!” At least, I really hope not! In the same way, while we can advise people spiritually, we need to remember that God has also provided us with wisdom to know our limits. There are many talented mental health professionals who have some great strategies/tools for working through mental health.

While we can advise people spiritually, we need to remember that God has also provided us with wisdom to know our limits. There are many talented mental health professionals who have some great strategies/tools for working through mental health.  

P2C-S: How do you identify the difference between whether you’re dealing with regular everyday emotions versus a legitimate mental health challenge?

Monique: I think it’s about looking for signs. It’s okay to have some sad days. But if somebody is at a point where they’re stuck in an emotion, and they’re not moving forward, and those strong skills are suffering, that would be a good sign that there’s something deeper going on. Also, why do we think counselling is a last resort? I think we need to take a preventative attitude towards counselling. 

P2C-S: Thinking about the wise mind and validation, how do we validate emotions while engaging the thinking brain as well?

Monique: There’s a great tool called Karpman’s Triangle. It recognizes that, a lot of times, we get trapped in triangulating behaviour. At the top of that triangle, we have the abuser, perpetrator, or bully. In another corner, we have the victim, and in the other one, we have the rescuer.

I’ll give you an example of how this works. Let’s say we have an 18-year-old who has an anxiety disorder and dropped out of school. They never got their driver’s license. They don’t do laundry. They don’t pay rent. They don’t do anything, so they’re staying at home. So now they feel like the victim. Mom and dad are paying rent, doing the laundry, and driving an 18-year-old around. They feel like they’re the rescuers. Then, mom and dad become really exhausted; this feels overwhelming. And so now they feel like the victims. Who’s become the abuser? Their son. And now they say, “You need to grow up, you need to move out, you need to get a job.” Now they’ve become the abuser, and the son is the victim again. Now the son might recognize the parents as victims. And he says “I’ll try to be better.” And they’ll say “Ok, yeah” and take him back in, and once again, the son is the “victim” and the mom and dad are the “rescuers.”

And so you can see where you just move around this thing, right? And all it does is just constantly puts somebody in the victim situation. 

Imagine I’m drowning in the water. If you ask, “Why are you drowning?,” that’s not helpful! On the flip side, if we jump in the water, we’re going to drown too. Sometimes people not only feel like they are drowning, but they also feel like they’re swimming with sharks. If you are in the boat and have a different perspective, you might say, “Those aren’t sharks, they’re just dolphins!” Our responsibility is to provide the tools, we empower and support. And that’s the keyword: to empower and support through giving them the tools. Now it’s the responsibility of the person in the water to swim to the life raft and grab on! Not say, “How dare you throw that life raft at me!” I think, as Christians, our responsibility is to learn and understand the tools we can use to help others, as well as our limitations. 

Instead, we can say, “Hey, can I help you find a counsellor?” or “What resource can I help you get connected to?” Now, if a person refuses to utilize the tools, there is a point where you have to just let go. And even in my role as a professional counsellor, I have found there have been numerous times where I have silently prayed, “God, I don’t know what’s going on, but can you work in this person’s heart?” God and counselling are not mutually exclusive, but just like so many other spaces in our lives, they are interconnected. When we recognize that God has created us with emotion, and learn to be more comfortable with both our emotions and others’ emotions, we create space for God to meet us and others in that emotional space. We might be surprised what God reveals to us in that emotional arena. I was a varsity wrestler, and so the metaphor of “wrestling with God” resonates with me. And so, just like Jacob wrestled with God and received a new name, Israel, which likely means, “He struggles with God”, are we willing to struggle through our emotions with God?

God and counselling are not mutually exclusive, but just like so many other spaces in our lives, they are interconnected.

P2C-S: Thank you so much for chatting with us today.

Did you enjoy this article? We encourage you to check out more articles in our #mentalhealth series. 

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