Paralyzed by Powerful Emotions? Here’s How to Break Free

Have you ever been so overwhelmed by your emotions, it was next to impossible to take action to solve your problems?

If so, you’re not alone. This “emotional paralysis” is one of the most common problems that Judi Phillips, MS, LMHC, sees in her counseling practice.

“This is something I talk about with my clients all the time,” Phillips said. But she tells her clients that no matter how stuck or trapped they feel, “there is always something you can do; there is always a way forward.”

During a recent conversation, Phillips, a pastoral counselor with the Pastoral Solutions Institute, outlined exactly how she helps her clients get off the emotional treadmill so they can take practical steps to move forward.

 

Recognizing Emotional Paralysis

Anxiety is one of the most common ways that people get paralyzed by their emotions—in this case, fear and worry. But the problem can crop up in other contexts, too. College students might feel so overwhelmed by everything they have to do (especially at the end of the semester), they don’t even know where to begin.

Emotional paralysis shows up in relationships, too.

When Phillips does marriage counseling, for instance, her clients often want to begin by describing the problem they’re having with their spouse. But it is usually fruitless to address the surface-level conflict without first addressing what’s going on inside each person: guilt, anger, sadness, grief, and so on.

“I say to them, ‘Okay, I understand. But let’s go back to what’s going on within you. You know, what are you feeling?” she said. “What do you have to do to help yourself so that you can effectively communicate to the other person?  You know, if you’re angry or sad or overwhelmed or whatever it is, you have to first acknowledge that, because if you’re not able to acknowledge that, you’re going to continue to put the problem out there on (the other person). And you’re going to continue to spin around and feel powerless. And that’s not at all where God intends us to be.”

 

God Gave Us the Tools We Need to Move Forward

The fact that God doesn’t want us to get trapped by our emotions is revealed in Scripture, of course, but also in the Theology of the Body. (The Theology of the Body is based on a series of lectures given by Pope John Paul II that explored how God’s design of the human body reveals his purpose for us.)

Phillips said that the dual functionality of our brain—its emotional side and its reasoning side—demonstrates that while God intends for us to experience emotions, he doesn’t want us to be held hostage by them. The brain’s very design allows us to use our intellect, will, and reason to understand and manage our emotions.

Consciously naming what we are feeling enables us to begin addressing them, taking concrete steps that will move us toward the way we would prefer to feel.

People who are trapped by their emotional state often believe that once they feel differently, they will be able to take action to address their problems, Phillips said. “We say something like, ‘If I only felt…, then I would….’ But the truth is, we have to act first, and then the healthy feeling will follow.”

 

3 Steps for Breaking Free and Taking Action

Here are the three steps Phillips uses to guide clients from emotional turmoil to empowerment:

  1.       Identify your feelings. Ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now?” This step is crucial for acknowledging your current emotional state. At the same time, you can also name how you would prefer to be feeling.

“You’re honoring yourself in the way that God created you,” Phillips said. “And when you do that, you’re able to get more clarity about what is going on.”

To take the college student example, you might say, “I’m feeling overwhelmed and anxious because I have so much to do, I don’t know where to begin, and I am afraid I won’t get everything done on time.”

Bonus points if you write this down: the act of writing engages the brain more holistically.

  1.       Understand the cause. Ask, “What is it that’s causing this feeling?” Only by identifying the real-world cause(s) of your negative emotions can you begin to take steps to address those causes.

Continuing with our college student example, you might sit down and write out every single thing you have to do by the end of the semester.

  1.       Take action. This step has two parts:
  2.       First, figure out what you need to do to regulate your out-of-control emotions. There are many ways to do this, but one method Phillips likes involves listening to the rosary sung in Gregorian chant; the rhythm of the chant helps to re-tune our own internal rhythm, she said.
  3.       Make a plan, then act. Finally, ask, “What steps can I take to help me feel better?” Identify what specific actions you can take to move you toward your preferred emotional state. The college student, for example, might create a calendar or schedule that lists how she will tackle the tasks she needs to get done.

Phillips asks her clients who suffer from anxiety to write out all their worst-case scenarios. Then, she has them write down a plan naming how they would respond in each situation.

 

A Spiritual Practice to Boost Your Well-Being

Anyone who is familiar with the spiritual practice of the daily examen, also known as the Ignatian examen, might recognize some similarities between the method described by Phillips and the examen.

Like the examen, Phillips recommends checking in with yourself several times a day. As a spiritual practice, this works just as well with positive emotions.

“If I’ve been out in nature, walking, and it’s just a beautiful day, and I ask myself that question, ‘How am I feeling right now? I’m feeling really joyful.’ And what is it that’s causing that? The beauty of nature.

“Then: ‘What can I do to help myself?’ Well, there isn’t anything I really need to do to help myself, but I’m just going to acknowledge it, and by acknowledging it, I’m honoring myself in the way God created me to be.

“And then, thirdly, ‘What do I need to do about this?’ I don’t need to do anything other than offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God. I’m going to just acknowledge it, appreciate it, and thank God for the beauty of his creation.”

Incorporating this practice into your daily routine can significantly enhance your mental health and quality of life. Phillips notes that her clients who consistently apply these steps quickly gain self-awareness and change the way they tackle the problems life throws their way.

“It’s life changing,” Phillips said, “because you realize, first of all, I can always understand myself. Secondly, because of that, I can always find a way forward.”

If you would like more help with this or another mental health topics, reach out to Judi Phillips or another pastoral counselor at CatholicCounselors.com.

How To Walk On Water

Guest Post by Jacob Francisco, MA, LMHC – Pastoral Counselor, CatholicCounselors.com

Anxiety and fear are primal emotions that we all experience to some degree, in big and little ways. The nature of fear and worry is to draw our attention to the object of the feeling, whether inside or outside our head. When we are afraid of something we are alert for that thing and we sometimes see it where it is not actually present. If I am afraid of monsters in the dark, everything in the dark room becomes a possible monster. My perception becomes focused on finding the monsters, so I see them even in ordinary things. If I am worried about an upcoming event, the thoughts about it might be so strong that I stay up at night dwelling on those worries. It can be very difficult to think about anything other than the object of my worry or fear.

Because these emotions take our attention and focus we often cannot see how to deal with them. We become wrapped up within the thoughts and emotions so much that we cannot sleep, have trouble relaxing or find it difficult to think about anything else other than the worry or fear. We may become so paralyzed in a given moment that we are unable to act at all. Maybe we can never think of the right thing to say to our boss or our spouse when they are angry with us. Perhaps we find it difficult to socialize with people in the same room, so we say nothing. Some may have unwelcome and unwanted thoughts come into our mind that take our peace or cause a whole chain of strong emotions and regrettable actions and we become distraught that we cannot seem to be rid of the thoughts.

Recall the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water. (It is Matthew 14:22-33 if you want to read the whole thing). The disciples in the boat see what they think is a ghost walking through the wind and across the water. Peter calls out to Jesus, walks on the water, and then sinks.

Now here is the key: when Peter “saw the wind” he was afraid, and began to sink. It was fear that caused his sinking. Why? It is precisely the moment that Peter gives attention to the wind that he is no longer focused on Christ. When his focus was on Christ, he could walk across the waves. When he was focused on what brought fear, he sank. He moved towards the object of his gaze. When he took those first steps towards Christ, nothing happened to the wind and the waves. Those remained as strong as ever. His focus on Christ allowed him to move beyond the fear that they instilled.

The disciples were in the boat and very much aware of the wind and waves. So we begin by acknowledging our fears and worries. The avoidance of what causes our fear or worry is a natural strategy for managing these feelings, and we do it because it works for a time. The reality is that this only increases our anxiety over the long term. This becomes a cycle which can get out of control. We must see and acknowledge our wind and waves.

Then we turn our gaze to the healthy thing. This new object of focus can be internal or external. Internally, we can focus on a comforting Scripture verse, a mental image of God or His saints, or some other holy thing. Scripture encourages us to “Set your minds on things that are above” (Col 3:2). When we are confronted with the thoughts and feelings of fear or worry, we need to turn our gaze, or set our mind, on Christ in this way. This is not an easy thing to do. Your attention will wander. The fear or worry will make every attempt to regain your attention. This is unavoidable. Peter was unable to walk all the way to Christ on his first attempt.

Because this can be so challenging, we often need to begin on a more natural level and work our way up to the mental strength to hold an image of Christ in our minds. God created us with a body, and our body is good. We were made to interact with the world in a physical manner. God communicates His grace to us through physical reality every day. The Sacraments and sacramentals convey grace through physical means. Physical things are easier to focus on amid anxiety and fear. If I am having strong unwanted thoughts in my mind, turning my focus to the things my five senses tell me can be very effective. If I am focused on my senses or what my body is telling me, it helps me to move through the thoughts by allowing me to not become overwhelmed.

Each step we take in life, whether spiritual, or emotional, or physical, needs to be with the awareness of grace. God is constantly pouring out His love and grace, that we might be overcomers and conquerors of sin and evil. We have to accept this grace, allow it to fill us consciously so that all our actions move with the strength of that grace.

The next time that you feel afraid or worried, remind yourself of the presence of God’s grace, focus on the healthy thing and take a step out onto the water.

 

To learn more about Jacob Francisco’s work, visit CatholicCounselors.com

How to Find Marriage Counseling That Really Works—and Why You Shouldn’t Wait

Nearly half of all first marriages in the United States end in divorce, yet couples typically wait four to six years from the onset of problems before seeking professional help. That’s too bad, because numerous research studies have shown that marriage counseling can be effective at significantly improving relationship satisfaction and preventing divorce.

Why do couples wait so long to seek professional help? Many couples steer clear of marriage counseling because they are afraid it won’t work, or because they view it as admitting failure. In the meantime, they usually turn to the sources of support that are most conveniently at hand: friends, family, pastors, and so on.

But these sources of help usually fail to address the deeper issues in a troubled relationship. Worse, well-meaning friends can offer advice that actually causes more problems.

“No one sets out to destroy their relationship, but I cannot tell you the number of hours I have had to spend with couples cleaning up messes that were made from bad advice they had received,” Dr. Greg Popcak writes in his book How to Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love. “Often, my clients will spend weeks undoing the problems caused by bad advice or poor support before we can even get to the original problem.”

When is it appropriate to lean on friends, family, and faith leaders for support, and when is it time to seek the help of a licensed marriage and family therapist? And how do you find a competent therapist—one who has training and experience in marriage counseling, and who is actually committed to helping you heal your marriage?

Dr. Popcak addresses all of these questions in chapter 11 of How to Heal Your Marriage, but we’ll summarize his advice below.

 

Family, Friends, Faith: The Limits of Common Marital Supports

Couples who encounter problems in their marriage often begin by seeking support from family and friends, and sometimes their pastor or another faith leader. Seeking emotional support and encouragement from family and friends can be a perfectly good first step, Dr. Popcak writes, when those people are able to provide informed peer support.

“The key words here are informed and peer,” he says. Peers are people who are on the same social level as you—not people who are emotionally or materially dependent on you. And an informed peer is someone who has demonstrated maturity, virtue, and good character. This is someone who is capable of lovingly challenging your outlook and assumptions rather than simply affirming everything you say.

While certain friends and family members can provide much-needed support, they are rarely a good source of practical advice for couples experiencing significant marital problems. That’s because friends and family are not usually in the best position to provide objective advice. Moreover, they usually lack the professional training and experience necessary to provide strategies that are research-tested and proven to work. Finally, Dr. Popcak says, in a culture where divorce is common, “most people intuitively know much more about what it takes to end a marriage than how to save it.”

What about your pastor? Your pastor may be able to offer you the spiritual support you need to tackle your marriage problems, but unless he has a professional degree in counseling, he is no more qualified to offer you marriage counseling than he is to treat your medical problems. That is not to say that you shouldn’t reach out to your pastor, but depending on the severity of your problems, most pastors will likely point you in the direction of marriage-friendly counseling.

 

Why Good Marriage Counseling Works

Human relationships, even between two people who love one another, are complicated, and the keys to a healthy relationship are not always obvious or intuitive. This is where a licensed marriage therapist can help. Drawing on decades of research, a competent marriage therapist can help couples learn the habits and practices that make for a happy, fulfilling relationship.

Dr. Popcak, for example, lists eight habits of happy couples:

  1. Regularly connecting through daily rituals of working, playing, praying, and talking together.
  2. Practicing emotional rapport and benevolence.
  3. Practicing emotional self-control, especially during times of stress and conflict.
  4. Practicing a “positive intention frame”—that is, assuming the best about your spouse even when they are at their worst.
  5. Taking care of one another as you work through conflicts.
  6. Practicing mutual respect, accountability, and boundaries.
  7. Learning from mistakes and learning to talk about “perpetual problems.”
  8. Finding good support for their marriage.

Couples who are struggling often think that the key is to solve the conflict between them. In fact, research shows that both happy and unhappy couples have about the same amount of conflict; the difference is that happy couples have the skills to handle those conflicts in ways that draw them together rather than pushing them apart.

A good marriage therapist serves as a sort of coach, helping couples learn these and other skills that will enable them to have a happy marriage. It is this long-term, expert guidance that makes marriage counseling so effective.

But how do you find a good marriage therapist?

 

Choosing a Competent, Marriage-Friendly Therapist

To find a good therapist, start by looking for someone whose training has prepared them to specialize in marriage counseling. Research by Gottman (2011) shows that therapists with specific training in marriage and family therapy have significantly higher success rates with marital therapy clients (over 90%) compared to general practice therapists (as low as 30%).

Ask about the potential therapist’s specific training and supervised experience in marital therapy. A qualified therapist should be able to describe their graduate coursework and practical experience in detail. If a therapist gives vague responses, they might not be the right fit.

Next, ask whether the therapist is marriage friendly. What is a “marriage-friendly” therapist? According to the National Registry of Marriage-Friendly Therapists, this is a therapist who believes it is preferable to help couples restore their marriage to health, if that is possible.

It might seem that most marriage and family therapists would hold this belief, but according to one national survey of 1,000 therapists, more than 60% said they are “neutral” on marriage versus divorce for their clients, according to the Registry.

For many Catholic couples, finding a therapist who understands and supports their faith tradition is also crucial. Research indicates that faithful Catholics prefer therapists with competencies in moral theology and other areas specific to their faith. Different faith traditions have unique perspectives on marriage, and working with a therapist unfamiliar with or unsupportive of these views can make counseling challenging.

 

The Path to a Happier Marriage

So, while many couples delay seeking professional help for their marriage because of fears or misperceptions about what it involves, the reality is that good marriage counseling is no different from the sort of help you would get from a coach, financial advisor, or a medical professional.

Throughout the Bible and two thousand years of tradition, the Christian faith acknowledges that good relationships don’t come naturally to us humans. We all need the help of God—and one another—to nurture happy, healthy relationships. Marriage counseling that respects clients’ faith and works from research-proven methods can provide the support couples need to fulfill God’s plan for their marriage.

For more advice about finding professional help for your marriage, see chapter 11 of How to Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love by Dr. Greg Popcak. The National Registry of Marriage-Friendly Therapists can direct you to marriage-friendly therapists in your area. And you can always get tele-counseling marriage therapy from the many Catholic therapists right here at CatholicCounselors.com.