“It’s not what happened, it’s how we process it.”

Has anyone ever said that to you? But as a dear friend recently asked me, how exactly do you process it?

That could be an entire book on its own. Each person and each situation is unique, but I think it’s safe to say we’ve all experienced some hard times in life.

A bad day at work. A fight with a spouse. Or maybe something more life-altering, like a health diagnosis or the loss of a loved one. The question remains though: How do you process it?

Since every situation is unique, I don’t believe there’s just one “proper” way to work through life’s trials and tragedies. What helped me may help you though, so here are my tips for how to process grief, loss, and change in our lives healthily:

Focus on facts first, not emotion. 

This will take the shame that you may be feeling (or the anger or the guilt or whatever) out of the way. When you reach for an unhealthy way of comforting yourself and that guilt or shame comes upon you, stop and ask yourself, What happened? What were you thinking before that happened?

Specifically, what did you need at that moment? Remember, just look for facts right now so that you can identify the lie behind that thought.

I will use myself as an example. My husband, Myron, told me for years that I don’t handle stress well. I would argue with him and say, “Yes, I do. I handle stress just fine!” while gritting my teeth in frustration.

Then one day I was working in a school and there was a large fight, where the police were called. Everything had just cleared out, and the tension was just easing off when I remembered the leftover pastries in the break room!

I dashed down and filled a styrofoam bowl full of donut holes. As I’m popping one in my mouth, my colleague leans back in his chair and looks over at me. He knew I do not drink alcohol, yet he said to me, “Well, Leavitt, that was quite a day, wasn’t it? Enough to go to the bar and tie one on!”

Lifting a donut hole to my mouth, I replied, “Now, you know I don’t drink.” My hand stilled as I had an AHA moment.

My husband was right. Again. Ugh. 

I really do not handle stress well. What do I turn to when I feel like I can’t handle this. This is too much. I need help. Where can I go to get relief? Comfort food?

Most times, I’m not even conscious of my train of thought. But, unfortunately, that’s been one of my go-to stress relievers for most of my life. It’s become a bad habit.

Now, I have to stop and consciously think, Why am I tempted to go grab that bag of chips?

I wish I could tell you I did this more often, but the bathroom scale would quickly point out the lie.

What steps can I take to handle the stress in a healthier way?

Think it through.

What did I really need at that moment? Once I identify that (apart from the shame, just the facts), it can become a learning experience for the future. But next time, I will have a choice before me: Do I want to grow and learn from this? Or do I want to continue in the same destructive pattern?

I recently learned about neuroplasticity, which is just a big word to say that God created us with the ability to change the neural pathways in our brains over the course of our lives. Our brains develop neuroplasticity to help us default to behavior. 

For example, have you ever driven home from someplace and then you are sitting in the driveway and you can’t remember driving there? It’s kind of scary, right? Your neuro pathway was working on autopilot for you. Your subconscious mind took care of it for you. You didn’t have to learn it or even think about it.

Any habit that you practice is the same way. But the good news is we can direct those neuro pathways. While researching this, I discovered scientists say it takes 66 days to rebuild neural pathways. 

Persistence is key, friend. 

So in my situation, here’s a healthier way for me to process the stress:

  • Stop and think, why am I tempted to reach for those donut holes?
  • Answer honestly, Ah, because it was a stressful day and the tension is still gripping me tight.
  • Make the connection that my brain is currently trained to turn to the bad habit of reaching for that bowl of donut holes.
  • Recognize that if I want to create new habits, it’s going to take work. But how? Stop and think (or maybe take a breath, go for a walk, call a friend, something) before I deal with the problem. This needs to be something that will help me be aware and take me out of that stressful situation.
  • Ask myself, Is this true? Am I still stressed? Is it something I’ve done? Am I a failure? Am I guilty? Should I be ashamed? Is what I just said about myself true?
  • Remind myself of the best news of all: As a believer, I can change what I think by asking God, Is that true? What do you say about me? (1 Corinthians 10:5).

Because here’s the truth that can conquer that stress or any other bad habit you’re trying to break:

  • God says He loves me. (Romans 5:5)
  • God says He’s there for me. (Psalm 56:9)
  • God’s word has answers to all my questions. (James 1:5)
  • God is concerned about the toll this is taking on my mental and physical health. (I Cor 6:19-20, Prov 17:22)

If it’s an addiction you face: He doesn’t want toxins in your body, clouding your judgment. He wants you free to choose life and healing. (Deut 30:19)

If you’ve experienced trauma: He doesn’t want it to keep you trapped in the past. He wants you to know He has a hope and future for you. (Jer 29:11-13)

If its anxious thoughts troubling you: He doesn’t want those thoughts spiraling out of control. He wants to give you a sound mind. (2 Tim 1:7)

He doesn’t want you ruled by fear, which leads to protection mode, but wants you centered in his love and his promises. (1 John 4:7-21)

Do you want to grow, dear friend?

What we think about will become our actions. It’s our choice: Those actions can be detrimental to our physical, emotional, and spiritual health as they trigger spiraling shame and guilt. 

Or, we can stop it in its tracks at the thought!

We can choose life and growth in these areas that plague us.

I think about one of the things that our pastor, Ron Meyer, has said for years about how to learn to make wise decisions: Think. Evaluate. Make a decision.

We can break these old habits. 

It’s work, but it’s worth it! 

What areas do you need to retrain your brain? Share with our community in the comments below or email me at jenny@jennyleavitt.com. I’d love to connect with you on this journey!

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