When pain runs deep: 10 self-care practices

In the shadows of the confined closet, with my face wet from tears and my heart broken open, I awkwardly braced my body against the palms of my hands as I collapsed onto the ground. My crumpled body found a home amongst the crumpled clothes pile that hadn’t yet made its way to the laundry. A sweatshirt that my head had found its rest upon soaked up my tears. The chaos of pain and sorrow running deep and rampant through me had reached a point of paralysis. I felt stuck, glued to the carpet, lost in the darkness.

Unfortunately, unexpected suffering and grief and betrayal and other events caused this scene to become a familiar one in my life over the years. Each time old pain was triggered or new trauma occurred, the pain ran so deep through my being that it felt like a toxin coursing through my veins. And each time, as my soul felt trapped and darkness abounded in the depths, I sought out spaces with the same characteristics, dark and confining, like my bedroom closet.

As I struggled with deep emotional pain, I wrestled, lamented, and prayed to God for rescue. I proclaimed the Scripture promises I knew to be true. But there was never a swift and miraculous rescue like I wanted. What I discovered was an invitation into the Lord’s loving presence and to join Him in the work of transformation and healing. 

The ugly truth is that suffering is part of the human condition, and at times, the pain runs deep through all of us. The beautiful truth is that this invitation of the Lord’s that I mentioned is for all of us as well. And, as Corrie Ten Boom famously wrote, “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”

Wherever we are, whatever our struggle, when we encounter a pain that runs deep, God’s love is deeper still. And it’s here, in the depths of pain, when the rescue hasn’t come yet, when silence fills our ears and the darkness blinds our eyes, where we especially need to hold tight to the Lord and live in expectation of His Promises. 

And we need not wait idly by. We fight back and find our way through the depths and the darkness. We can use practical tools to do this and take care of our souls. 

The following is a list of 10 self-care practices that can nourish our spirits and help bring us out of the depths: 

1. Visualize a Screen Door

Whenever I begin to feel “stuck” or “caught” by pain that runs deep, it helps me to imagine myself as a screen door instead of a sticky fly trap. I visualize emotions and thoughts passing through me. I also tend to do this with the next activity.

2. Breathe Deep

When we’re in deep with our pain, we often forget to breathe. Inhaling and exhaling deeply is one the simplest yet most profoundly helpful practices I have discovered. Breathing intentionally (i.e.: a certain number of breaths over a specific length of time or a specific meditative practice) has all sorts of emotional, mental, and physical benefits and is truly one of the best ways I have found to calm my soul and take back control of what seems to be out of control in me. 

3. Preach to Yourself

Read and speak affirmations and truth. Remind yourself of what you know to be true because emotions can disorient us and lies like to attack us in the dark and lonely places of pain. Bring light to the darkness. Turn to God’s Word to remember the truths that God says about you. Make a list of your positive qualities or write a letter to yourself. Have “I am” statements at the ready when the battle in the depths comes to remind yourself the truth of who you are.

4. Breath Prayers

This practice combines ideas #2 and #3. This essentially involves choosing a truth from #3 (a short scripture or phrase), using deep breathing from #2, and joining them in a prayer. As you inhale, begin your short prayer, as you exhale complete it, repeat. Maybe start by trying this for a minute, work your way to five, maybe even use this form of prayer for 20 minutes. You can use Google to search for samples of breath prayers if you’re looking for a place to start. 

5. Get Outside

Inside, in physically confining and dark spaces, we’re stuck in an environment much like where we’re stuck in our pain. But when we step outside, literally, we also begin to step outside of our pain. Get outside. Breathe in cool fresh air and fill your lungs. Notice the vast blue sky and the world around you. Be mindful of the smells, the sights, the sounds, etc. you observe. For me, when the weather cooperates, I like to walk barefoot on the cement sidewalk in front of my house and then step onto the cool earth feeling the damp, scratchy grass against the soles of my feet. Feeling the hard ground under me makes me feel grounded and strong when I had felt lost and weak. 

6. Move Your Body

Find a way to move. Maybe while you’re outside using tip #5, you can take a walk or ride a bike. Physical activity and moving our bodies is another great way to help us move through our emotions and thoughts and get unstuck. Yoga is one of my favorite ways to move that I incorporate regularly into my life for this reason. The data behind the mental and emotional and psychological healing benefits of yoga (especially in trauma survivors) is fascinating. Find what works for you and get your body moving. 

7. Have a Cup of Tea

I have always been a tea lover, but as I drank a cup of hot tea in the throes of deep emotions once, I unexpectedly discovered relief for my soul. The aroma stimulates a calming effect within me. The warmth of the liquid fills my body and spirit in all the aching places. I continue to be amazed by the soothing affects a simple cup of hot tea with a touch of honey has on me, but it works. If you’re not a fan of tea, maybe try a cup of warm milk, but steer clear of anything caffeinated or alcoholic which can exasperate your emotions more. 

8. Write

Writing is a wonderful and proven therapeutic practice. Take your deep emotions and write them onto paper—get them outside of yourself. Write it all out. Everything. Imperfect and uncensored. As the words flow out of you, some of the pain will follow.

9. Create

Whether it’s grabbing your Crayola markers and coloring in an adult coloring book, chopping fresh veggies for soup or kneading dough in the kitchen, or something else like knitting, – engage in a creative practice. The act of creating can be extremely calming and beneficial as it provides another opportunity for processing, releasing, distracting, and cultivating positive thoughts and feelings of peace, productiveness, joy, and more. 

10. Phone a Friend

Have someone in your life who is a safe place and who can hold space for you. And then, when you’re struggling with hurt that runs deep, reach out to this friend. Simply speaking our struggles out loud to someone who knows how to listen and walk alongside of us can disarm the power of the pain. There will be times when they will simply listen and other times when they will speak those truths and affirmations in love mentioned in tip #3—we need both. Find that friend who will get down on the floor with you and give you time there, but who will lift you up when it’s been long enough. Make a list of 1-3 people you can go to when needed.

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed mental health care professional. If you’re struggling with emotional or mental health issues, first seek advice from your medical doctor and/or a licensed therapist. I have done both and many of my self-care tips have come from what the professionals have taught me. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Line (U.S.) 1-800-273-8255. UK Samaritans: 116 123

Kristin Vanderlip is an Army wife, a bereaved mom to her little girl in heaven, and a stay-at-home mom to her two rainbow boys (ages 3 and 6). A decade ago you could find Kristin teaching English in a middle school classroom, now she is a writer and freelance editor. Kristin follows Jesus with an expectant heart as she navigates both the ordinary moments and the unexpected trials of life. She is passionate about seeking God and holding onto hope, especially when it’s hard, and encouraging other women to do the same & cultivate their own expectant hearts. You can find Kristin at: www.anexpectantheart.com.
iola magazine even in the deep

From aching to expectant heart – learning to hope again

I never would have expected a child’s tantrum to bring a grown, intelligent, and capable woman to the ends of herself and question whether she was actually any of those things.

But there I was, like a child myself, sitting on the plush carpet of my bedroom closet with my arms wrapped around my knees, and my mind swirling with emotions, doubts, and questions.

Upstairs in his bedroom, my little boy endured an ungluing of epic proportions and shrieked at levels that pierced my ears, and my heart, and threatened my sanity.

My mothering soul longed to soothe the chaos in my child’s small spirit, but I couldn’t. His emotions raged and my efforts failed. I knew my emotions would rise to meet his if I wasn’t careful, so I did the only thing I could to not make it worse. I retreated to my closet where I poured out silent tears and prayers and waited helplessly for my son’s storm to pass.

For several years this scene played out in our home daily, and for several years I prayed and prayed and tried every parenting strategy, method, tool, trick, and tip suggested to me by friends, mentors, a licensed therapist, and even my son’s pediatrician – but nothing seemed to work.

I couldn’t figure out how to help my little boy through the torrent of emotional meltdowns he was experiencing, and I felt like I was failing him as his mom. My “mother’s guilt” became discouraging, oppressive even. And my son’s meltdowns left me exhausted, frustrated, and on the verge of hopelessness. My prayer life and faith gradually grew into a reflection of these feelings — and stirred up old emotions from what seemed like a lifetime ago.

You see remaining hopeful had become painful and difficult for me after walking through an agonizing season of suffering six years prior. A week after giving birth to my first child, my little girl, her NICU doctors discovered she had a fatal condition. She died in her sleep four weeks later.

From the moment we learned her life would soon be stripped away to the days and years after her death, I wrestled with God, struggled with disappointment, and found myself haunted by the countless prayers I had cried out and prayed over her. My grief brought me a profound intimacy with God as I drew near to Him, and yet, as my faith became restored, wounds healed, and pains redeemed, hope remained difficult, even though I didn’t want to admit it.

But God knew – and He wasn’t about to leave me there…

And so a few hours after this particular meltdown with my son, I found myself gathered with other women and mothers at a local church event. I was desperate for the reprieve and for the fellowship that reminded me I wasn’t alone in the mothering or faith journey. But more so, I was desperate for an encounter with Jesus. My soul felt emptied and parched, and I knew He was the only thing that could satisfy my thirst.

The entire room stood to their feet as the worship team sang a song I had never heard before (turns out it was Tasha Cobb’s “Put a Praise On It”). The lyrics praised God for what He was going to do. We sang out: “There’s a breakthrough in this room and it’s got my name on it. So I’m gonna put a praise on it.”

The boldness of praising God for future things caught me off guard and shocked me. It felt like someone pushed pause. The room praised on and yet I couldn’t hear a thing. My body stilled, my own voice quieted, and my spirit leaned in.

Right then, unexpectedly, through an unfamiliar song, after years of struggling with my son’s behaviors and my own frustrated emotions, God’s voice fell over my spirit, “Do you believe I am who I say I am? Do you believe My promises are true?”

My soul responded adamantly, “Yes. Of course I believe.”

And then the thought appeared, “If I really believe, then I need to pray like it – and ‘put a praise on it.’”

A switch flipped in my perspective that night. It released revelations and sparked a courageous hope within me.

Hope doesn’t come from believing that God will fulfill our expectations. Hope comes from trusting that God will fulfill His promises. Hope comes from knowing, praying, and living in expectation of God’s Word to us.

Fears, worries, and other emotions had been strangling me, and suddenly their suffocating grip vanished. I could breathe. Hope filled my lungs and brought peace to my anxious heart (even as those meltdowns continued to plague our lives for many more months).

God was transforming me. I became expectant. I no longer expected or prayed according to my desires and timeline, but I learned how to expect and pray with God’s perspective, with a heart aligned to His Word, and to boldly praise Him for what He promises, even in the waiting.

In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.” (Psalm 5:3 NIV)

When we pray and live and wait with expectant hearts, our hearts release fear, anxiety, frustration, and doubt and fill with gratitude, peace, and… hope. Our eyes open to the unexpected ways in which God reveals His promises and presence, gifting us with an incredible sense of wonder and joy right there in the pain, in the trial, in the waiting, in the unknown.

Life is hard and circumstances may lead us to do the ugly cry on the floor of our closet a time or two (or maybe more), but when we align our messy and hurting hearts with the One who created them and pray expectantly according to His promises, God transforms us, breathes hope into us, and we witness His faithfulness.

Kristin Vanderlip is an Army wife, a bereaved mom to her little girl in heaven, and a stay-at-home mom to her two rainbow boys (ages 3 and 6). A decade ago you could find Kristin teaching English in a middle school classroom, now she is a writer and freelance editor. Kristin follows Jesus with an expectant heart as she navigates both the ordinary moments and the unexpected trials of life. She is passionate about seeking God and holding onto hope, especially when it’s hard, and encouraging other women to do the same and cultivate their own expectant hearts. You can find Kristin sharing her struggles, victories, and encounters with God as well as His gifts of beauty and truth over on her blog, which she writes at regularly, www.anexpectantheart.com, and on Instagram @kristinvanderlip.

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