Setting the Captive Free! New Research Illustrates our Power to Overcome Depression

In response to my post linking the new study questioning the serotonin-deprivation theory of depression, I received a very thoughtful email from a reader who wrote, shutterstock_212803426

“Dr. Popcak, some of my friends who suffer with depression are saying that in this article you are blaming them for their depression. Can you explain further?”

Blaming the Victim?  A Response

I am grateful for her question because I would never want anyone to think that I was blaming sufferers of depression for being depressed. She was referring, I suspect, to this part of my post where I addressed the notion that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance.  I wrote, “every choice you make, every behavior you exhibit sends a wash of chemicals through your body.  It stands to reason that healthy thoughts, choices, and behaviors would facilitate a healthy chemical balance and unhealthy thoughts, choices, and behaviors would increase the likelihood of an unhealthy chemical imbalance.”

As I assured my correspondent in the comments section of that post, it was not my intention to blame depression sufferers, rather it was (and is) my intention to show depression sufferers that they don’t have to be passive victims of this horrible disease, that there is a lot that they can do to contribute to their healing.

Depression: No One’s Fault.

It is not the depression-sufferers “fault” that they think the way they do, approach problems they way they do, or have some of the unhealthy habits and/or relationship patterns they have.  For the most part these things were taught and modeled and “caught” unconsciously in one’s family-of-origin over the course of tens of thousands of interactions between parents and children and grandparents and siblings and the community and the belief system one is raised in.  No one person could possibly be personally responsible for all that, but it still impacts us mightily.

How Environment Influences Depression Gene Expression

On top of all this, biology certainly is a factory, but it isn’t as straightforward as saying, “depression is caused by genetics and biology.”  In the first place, depression is not so much genetic as it is an epigenetic illness.   Epigenetics studies how environment effects the expression of certain genetic traits and profiles.  Certain genes won’t “turn on” if the environmental conditions aren’t right. Depression has genetic and biological components, yes,  but those components, by and large, won’t come online unless the environment tells them to.  And, curiously enough, once our life experiences activate our genes they can be passed on to the next generation, communicating positive and negative environmental experiences from parents to children through genetic encoding, which is why depression tends to run in families.

Victim No More

The good news is, we don’t have to be passive victims of any of the “bad programming” from these environmental and epigenetic triggers that cause poor thinking habits, unhealthy attitudes, and destructive approaches to life.  Medication can certainly take some of the edge off the worst of it, but counseling can help us make dramatic changes in our thoughts, behaviors, and relationships that not only help us feel better emotionally, but rewire our biological and genetic programming, bringing healing both to us and the next generation.  With God’s grace and consistent effort, we can master the environmental programming–even the environmental programming that triggers certain biological responses–that causes depression and other emotional illnesses.

A Light in the Darkness

To my way of thinking, that is anything but “blaming the victim.”  That is a tremendously liberating and hopeful idea, a light that shines the way out of the terrible darkness that is depressive illness.

If you would like to learn more about faithful and effective treatments for depression and other emotional and relational problems, visit the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s website (or call 740-266-6461) to learn more about how our Catholic telecounseling practice can help you set you free.



Maximize Your Baby’s Word Power with This ONE Simple Tip!

Parents may not understand a baby’s prattling, but by listening and responding, they let their infants know they can communicate which leads to children forming complex sounds and using

Vigorous response to baby babbling leads to better verbal skills.

Vigorous response to baby babbling leads to better verbal skills.

language more quickly.

That’s according to a new study by the University of Iowa and Indiana University that found how parents respond to their children’s babbling can actually shape the way infants communicate and use vocalizations.

The findings challenge the belief that human communication is innate and can’t be influenced by parental feedback. Instead, the researchers argue, parents who consciously engage with their babbling infants can accelerate their children’s vocalizing and language learning.

“It’s not that we found responsiveness matters,” says Julie Gros-Louis, assistant professor of psychology at the UI and corresponding author on the study, published in the journal Infancy. “It’s how a mother responds that matters.”

…What researchers discovered is infants whose mothers responded to what they thought their babies were saying, showed an increase in developmentally advanced, consonant-vowel vocalizations, which means the babbling has become sophisticated enough to sound more like words. The babies also began directing more of their babbling over time toward their mothers.

On the other hand, infants whose mothers did not try as much to understand them and instead directed their infants’ attention at times to something else did not show the same rate of growth in their language and communication skills.

In other words, when a baby says, “BLALALALALALALALA!”  Parents who say, “What’s that, Baby?  You want cuddles?  Does my baby want cuddles?  Yes you do! (kiss, kiss, snuggle, snuggle)” have infants who learn better language skills  more quickly and efficiently than parents who don’t say such things often and consistently.

Communicating with infants is a wonderful and engaging activity.  Check out Parenting with Grace  for more ways you can get the most out of your relationship with your little one!

Depression: Caused by Low Serotonin? Not So Fast, Study Says….

From Neuroscience Research Techniques

The synaptic gap is filled by neurotransmitters like serotonin.

The synaptic gap is filled by neurotransmitters like serotonin.

Depression is the leading cause of disability around the world, and for several decades, scientists have believed that low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin was a major cause of depression. A new study in ACS Chemical Neuroscience questions that hypothesis, as the creation of serotonin-deficient mice did not lead to the presence of depression-like symptoms as expected. Researchers at Wayne State University found that although behavioral tests revealed that these serotonin-deficient mice were compulsive and aggressive, they did not show signs of depression. This indicates that the causes of depression need to be questioned more thoroughly so we can increase our understanding and so better therapies can be developed.    Journal article: Mice Genetically Depleted of Brain Serotonin Do Not Display a Depression-like Behavioral Phenotype. ACS Chemical Neuroscience, 2014      Read more.

Big Pharma has convinced many people that the “cause” of depression is a “chemical imbalance”; specifically, serotonin deficiency.  I don’t deny that neurochemistry plays a significant role in mental health.  After all, every thought you think, every choice you make, every behavior you exhibit sends a wash of chemicals through your body.  It stands to reason that healthy thoughts, choices, and behaviors would facilitate a healthy chemical balance and unhealthy thoughts, choices, and behaviors would increase the likelihood of an unhealthy chemical imbalance.  But the situation is much more complicated than “take this pill, get this effect.”  Ultimately, meds can, at best, help control some of the symptoms of depression (which is nothing to sneeze at, I grant).  A cure can only be affected by changing one’s thoughts and lifestyle.

If you’d like to learn more about effective treatments for depression, anxiety and other emotional and relational problems, check out the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Catholic Telecounseling Practice.  Learn more at our website or by calling 740-266-6461 to make an appointment with a counselor.




13 Reasons You Need to Make a Baby Today.

Ok,  you caught me.  There’s really only one reason spread out over 13 countries.shutterstock_212145718

The world is graying at a break-neck pace and that’s bad news for the global economy.   By 2020, 13 countries will be “super-aged” — with more than 20% of the population over 65 — according to a report by Moody’s Investor Service.  That number will rise to 34 nations by 2030. Only three qualify now: Germany, Italy and Japan.

“Demographic transition … is now upon us,” warn Elena Duggar and Madhavi Bokil, the authors of the Moody’s report.

“The unprecedented pace of aging will have a significant negative effect on economic growth over the next two decades across all regions.”

They cite Conference Board estimates that rapid aging will knock nearly one percentage point off global growth rates over the next decade.  According to Moody’s, Greece and Finland will turn “super-aged” next year. Eight countries, including France and Sweden, will have joined them by 2020.  Canada, Spain and the U.K. will be “super-aged” by 2025, and the U.S. will follow by 2030.

So, there you go.  Humanity needs you!  Time to get busy, people.  Oh, and if you would like to experience more joy and passion while you’re practicing your baby making skills, check out Holy Sex! A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.  

Innocence Restored-Hope for Those Who Have Suffered Indignity or Abuse

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak


One of the most heartbreaking aspects of my work with victims of abuse—whether verbal, physical, sexual or some combination of all of these—is to hear them talk about how they feel “dirty”,  “tainted,” “guilty” and a host of other adjectives that undermine their dignity and worth as persons.  Intellectually, most of them know that they bear no blame for the things that were done to them, but the emotional and spiritual wounds run deep.  When we’re treated like trash, we often internalize that treatment.   In many cases, we carry the feelings of shame and the loss of our innocence long after the abuse is over.

The Truth Will Set You Free

As difficult as this can be to face, one truth that seems to really resonate for my clients is the idea that they cannot lose what didn’t belong to them from the beginning.  What do I mean?  The truth is that as Christians, we know that none of us can claim to be good or innocent on our own power.  We are simple lumps of carbon; obstinate bags of water that, left to our own devices can claim no goodness, innocence or dignity.

But, as Christians, we also know that we  can  claim goodness, innocence, dignity and more as our inheritance  because we are loved by the God who is the source and summit of all of those qualities. Because God loves us, he shares  his  goodness,  hisinnocence,  his  dignity,  his  grace with us and through his merciful love, makes us good, innocent, dignified and grace-filled.  When he shares these qualities with us, they do not become ours.  Rather,  they make us more his.  That’s a tremendously important distinction, especially for the victim of abuse.  Why?

Because the abuser pretends to have the power to take away his victim’s innocence, goodness and dignity. That’s part of the spell the abuser casts on his victim, making the person he preys upon believe that he has more power than he actually does.  But while an abuser can hurt our bodies and wound our minds, he or she cannot take our innocence, dignity or goodness because these qualities are not ours to lose in the first place.  They are God’s to give.    And God would never give away those qualities that are part and parcel of his love for us. Nothing separates us from the love of God or the benefits that accompany his love.  No one can take either his love or the benefits of his love from us either.

Loved Into Innocence


In other words, we are not innocent because nothing bad has ever happened to us.   (BTW, That’s Pelagianism, not Christianity!)   We are innocent  because we are loved by God regardless  of what we have done or have had done to us.   Likewise, we are not good because we have not done anything bad or been subject to badness.  We are  good because we are loved despite  the badness in our hearts or in the world in which we live.  We do not have dignity because we have never suffered indignity.  Rather,  we enjoy dignity because God loves us no matter what  indignities we have suffered.

I do not mean to suggest that the abuse victim’s pain should magically disappear because they might read these words.  But I have found that reflecting on these truths in a spirit of prayer does open survivors’ hearts to new possibilities.  Specifically, the possibility that they  are  good,  and  innocent  and  have dignity and that they have always been these things and always will be these things as long as God loves them, which is always and forever.

Your Innocence is Assured

If you are the survivor of abuse, first know that you have my deepest sympathy for your pain and your struggle.    Second, be assured that I am lifting you up in my general intentions each evening.  But thirdly, and most importantly,  know that you are good, and innocent, and have dignity not because of or in spite of anything that has or has not happened to you or because of anything you have or have not done.  You are good, and innocent, and have dignity because you are loved by God.  Period.    And no one could ever take that away from you no matter what they may pretend to the contrary.

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

smiling kids

Emotional Intelligence  is a term coined by psychologist,  Daniel Goleman, that refers to a person’s ability to identify, manage, understand and process emotions so that you can effectively manage
stress, have healthy, rewarding relationships, handle conflict respectfully, and maintain good emotional health.

As the article I linked above explains, Emotional Intelligence has been shown to be even more important than IQ in determining career success and both relationship and life satisfaction. Considering all the benefits to be gained by developing Emotional Intelligence, it is something that every parent should be concerned with helping their children develop.  The Catholic family, I think, should be especially concerned with cultivating Emotional Intelligence because this quality has everything to do with helping a family be the “community of love” and “school of virtue” that Church says families are called to be.  Without Emotional Intelligence, it is impossible for a Catholic family to fulfill its mission, as spelled out in Evangelium Vitae, to be a community of people dedicated to living out relationships characterized by,  “a  respect for others, a sense of justice, cordial openness, dialogue, generous service, solidarity and all the other values which help people to live life as a gift” (EV #92).

Over at  PsychCentral, Dr. Jonice Webb proposes  3 Tips for Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.  They’re definitely worth considering.

1. Pay Attention.   Work hard to see your child’s true nature.   What does your child like, dislike, get angry about, feel afraid of, or struggle with?   Feed these observations back to your child in a non-judgmental way so that your child can see herself through your eyes, and so that she can feel how well you know her.

Life Advantage: Your child will see herself reflected in your eyes, and she will know who she is. This will give her confidence in her life choices and will make her resilient to life’s challenges.

2. Feel an Emotional Connection to Your Child.   Strive to feel what your child is feeling (empathy), whether you agree with it or not.   When you feel your child’s emotion, he will feel an instant bond with you.

Life Advantage:  Your child will learn empathy and will have healthier relationships throughout his life.

3. Respond Competently to Your Child’s Emotional Need.  Do not judge your child’s feeling as right or wrong.   Look beyond the feeling, to the source. Help your child name her emotion.   Help her manage the emotion.

Life Advantage:  Your child will have a healthy relationship with his own emotions. He will naturally know that his feelings are important and how to put them into words and manage them.    READ MORE.

Those are some terrific tips.  If you’d like to learn more about how to raise faithful, emotionally intelligent children, check out  Parenting with Grace.

Surprising Secrets Reading “50 Shades” Reveals About You.


If you’re a fan of the 50 Shades of Grey series of erotic fiction, a new study says that you might be more of an open book than you think.

Young adult women who read “Fifty Shades of Grey” are more likely than nonreaders to exhibit signs of eating disorders and have a verbally abusive partner, finds a new study led by a Michigan State University researcher.

Further, women who read all three books in the blockbuster “Fifty Shades” erotic romance series are at increased risk of engaging in binge drinking and having multiple sex partners.

The researchers studied more than 650 women aged 18-24, a prime period for exploring greater sexual intimacy in relationships, Bonomi said. Compared to participants who didn’t read the book, those who read the first “Fifty Shades” novel were 25 percent more likely to have a partner who yelled or swore at them; 34 percent more likely to have a partner who demonstrated stalking tendencies; and more than 75 percent more likely to have used diet aids or fasted for more than 24 hours.

Those who read all three books in the series were 65 percent more likely than nonreaders to binge drink — or drink five or more drinks on a single occasion on six or more days per month — and 63 percent more likely to have five or more intercourse partners during their lifetime.  READ MORE

Caring for the Wrong Reasons is Hazardous to Your Health

Caring for people for the wrong reasons can cause burnout or worse.  A new study found that nurses who gravitate to the profession out of a desire to help people  tend to burn out and experienceshutterstock_129862169 other mental health problems at a higher rate than those who become nurses because they enjoy the work or the lifestyle afforded by the profession.  The study doesn’t just apply to nurses, but anyone in a relationship.

Caring for the Right Reasons

We’re all called to be caring toward others, but the reasons we care matter.  Looking more closely at the study, the reasons some people are more susceptible to relationship burnout and compassion fatigue boil down to what psychologists call  an “internal versus external locus of control.”

Internal Locus of Control

People with an internal locus of control do things because of the personal satisfaction they get either from a job well done or from the benefits that come from doing a particular activity.  People who are helpful because they enjoy sharing their gifts with others can be said to have an “internal locus of control” because they are motivated by personal or internal reasons f0r doing what they do.

External Locus of Control

People with an external locus of control do things because they are seeking approval and affirmation from others.  This is a more problematic motivation for helping others because other people don’t necessarily respond well to being helped.  Sometimes they’re not grateful.  Sometimes they’re even mean and disapproving.  Sometimes they take you for granted.  People with an external locus of control–despite themselves–tend to constantly be asking the people they’re serving (implicitly if not outright) “Am I doing it right?  How about now?  How about now?”  For them, helping is a test they are constantly failing because unless the person they are caring for gives them exactly the right kind of feedback, they can never be sure of themselves.  This just makes them work harder and harder all the while feeling like they are getting less and less for their efforts.  Ultimately, having this attitude toward a career or a relationship can be the kiss of death.

As Christians, we know that doing the right thing isn’t enough, we have to do it from the right place in our hearts (c.f., Matt 5:17-47).  If you are feeling burned out in your work or relationships, take a moment to consider not just how you are, but why.

The Next Step…

If you’d like to discover how to stop feeling so frustrated, burned-out, or fed up in your relationships, check out, God Help Me, These People are Driving Me Nuts!  or call 740-266-6461 to make an appointment to speak with a Catholic therapist from the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Catholic Tele-Counseling Services.  You might be surprised to find out how even the most obnoxious people can be tamed!

Feeling Loved Increases Sexual Pleasure

I get a lot of questions from men wondering how they can please their wives in the bedroom.  A new study confirms my usual advice, “Make her feel loved outside of the bedroom.”  That said, it marriageturns out that feelings of love don’t just improve the psychological experience of sex.  It also improves the physiological experience of sex.

Love and commitment can make sex physically more satisfying for many women, according to a Penn State Abington sociologist.  In a series of interviews, heterosexual women between the ages of 20 and 68 and from a range of backgrounds said that they believed love was necessary for maximum satisfaction in both sexual relationships and marriage. The benefits of being in love with a sexual partner are more than just emotional. Most of the women in the study said that love made sex physically more pleasurable.

“Women said that they connected love with sex and that love actually enhanced the physical experience of sex,” said Beth Montemurro, associate professor of sociology.

Women who loved their sexual partners also said they felt less inhibited and more willing to explore their sexuality.

“When women feel love, they may feel greater sexual agency because they not only trust their partners but because they feel that it is OK to have sex when love is present,” Montemurro said.  READ MORE

Want more ideas on how to have a more passionate marriage?  Check out Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving

Parenting Wisdom in Shorthand

By: Judith Costello

father and child beach

A posted meme says: “‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’–NOT TRUE! Words hurt, scar and leave deep wounds all the way down to the soul.”   On the surface this meme sounds right. And it has been shared almost 200,000 times!

But when I saw it, a red flag started waving. My reaction was, “Don’t invalidate the parenting wisdom that is ages old.”

An incident came immediately to mind. My son was in first grade. He had been riding the bus to school for a few days when he came home with tears in his eyes. Another boy had been taunting him. The boy’s words were hurtful and mean. And yes, it made my son feel “wounded.” So how is a parent to react?

My husband and I took him in hand and talked for quite awhile sitting on the side of his bed. After about 30 minutes he was calm; within an hour he was laughing about it. The next day he walked past that boy, looked him in the eye and smiled.

And do you know what our first words were? You guessed it—“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

We explained what that saying means of course. It doesn’t mean that words are never hurtful. It means–we can choose how we react! We can choose what we allow to settle into our hearts.

There are four important lessons here: 1) Bullies will always be with us. 2) Bullies are sad people. Their words come out of their troubles, their desire to control others and their ignorance. 3) It’s important to stay strong in yourself and let the mean words wash away like water going down the drain.   4) St. Paul said, “We do not wage war with human resources” (2Cor. 10). We must pray and stay focused on God’s words of love and mercy.

The message of this maxim is Biblical. We are called to help our children learn ways to cope with mean-spirited people.  If we don’t teach them  that they have resources for dealing with hurtful words, then our children will feel their identity is determined by mean people. And they will think that the government, or someone outside themselves, has to punish others to make things right.

So my response to the meme is two-fold:

1) There is history and wisdom in maxims like “sticks and stones…” That particular expression can be attributed to around 1862, published in a Christian magazine, but is probably much older. And the point of the “sticks and stones” saying is to teach children they can rise above whatever meanness they experience. Jesus said we will be persecuted and reviled, and we can actually celebrate it! We can unite our hurts or troubles with the suffering of Jesus and offer it up for our prayer intentions!

The tools of our battle against the meanness and lies of the world are  in our faith. St. Paul dealt with his detractors by saying this…”they only demonstrate their ignorance”…”we arm ourselves with the shield of faith.” 2 Cor. 10:12 and Eph. 6:16.

2) The first part of the meme has to do with  how we respond  to the meanness of others. That is what I have been addressing here. The second part of the meme has to do with  what we say to  others. That too is covered by an old bit of parenting wisdom: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Again this is a maxim…a shorthand way of saying important things. Jesus frequently talked about how we should avoid gossip and speak with charity. We should consider every word before we speak.

Words can definitely be used as weapons and that too is in the Bible. Our goal as Christians is to use words to be a light in the darkness, rather than  as knives that cut.

So as far as this meme goes, here’s another maxim….”Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” It’s great to come up with new ways to say that “words hurt, so watch what you say.” But don’t throw out the teachings of our ancestors in order to say that.

Credit to Judith Costello of CatholicExchange.