This is the second article in a series of blog posts titled The Emotionally Healthy Youth Worker by veteran youth worker and therapist Jason Wilkinson. You can find the link the first blog post here.

Let’s be honest, youth ministry is not for the faint of heart. It’s the kind of job that requires you to wear the hat of the speaker, teacher, counselor, janitor, recruiter, and accountant all at the same time, and often without much in the way of guidance or mentoring. It’s the kind of job that often requires one to live in a constant state of being “on” and emotionally available to others, all the while leaving you emotionally drained and empty. And if we’re not careful, that emotional emptiness can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness — and eventually to burnout.

The idea of caring for our mental and emotional being can easily be overlooked and not dealt with until we have reached a breaking point. However, if we can learn to be at peace with our emotions, we will be empowered to live and lead as Christ calls us to.

Dr. Terry Hargrave, from Fuller Theological Seminary, provides us with a framework to get us to be at peace with our emotions. Those steps again are:

#1: Recognize Your Pain

#2: Find What’s True

#3: Replace the Pain with Peace

Let’s dig more into Step #1: Recognize Your Pain.

We all have something called a “pain cycle”. A painful emotion will provoke an automatic and unintentional coping behavior. Often we don’t even recognize it. We just do it. And that pain can then manifest as anxiety, depression, withdrawal, anger, or something else. However, this response doesn’t usually give us what we really want or need, so we end up feeling more emotional pain. This is our pain cycle.

Research in neuroscience is showing, however, what the author of Romans already knew to be true — that God’s creativity allows for our brains to be rewired, or in other words, transformed (Rom. 12:2).

Here are three ideas to help you recognize your pain:

Tip #1 Name Your Typical Emotions: Think of a recent conflict you had. What kind of messages did you receive about yourself? Perhaps it was that you’re not good enough. That you’re a failure. That you’re alone or that no one cares about you. Reflect on what those messages and emotions are. Name them. Check out my sample list of emotions to help get you started.

Tip #2Learn How You Cope: How did you immediately react to the emotion from the conflict? Did you get anxious, angry, withdraw, isolate? Reflect on what that coping was. Check out my sample list of coping behaviors to help.

Tip #3Link the Emotion to the Coping Behavior: Start by simply saying “When I feel _____, I typically cope by being _____.” It could look like, “When I feel unappreciated, I typically cope by getting angry.” Write it down somewhere you will see it and say it out loud once or twice a day. As you continue to link the emotion to the behavior and say it out loud, you’ll begin to realize when you are acting out of your pain cycle.

God has given you the ability to manage the ups and downs. Being able to do so will help in all of your relationships, including the one with yourself. Recognizing your pain is a step that can help you do it. In the next post of this series, we’ll discuss how you can Find What’s Truth.

Jason Wilkinson lives with his wife and two kids in Portland, Oregon. After 18+ years of leading in various student ministry roles, Jason recently transitioned into the profession of mental health therapy where he runs Wellspace Counseling, a private counseling practice in Tualatin. You can read more about Jason at or contact him at [email protected].