Use the ‘Fortress and Communion’ Prayer to Heal Past Hurts and Protect Your Heart

Have you ever felt deeply hurt or attacked, only to find yourself struggling to forgive and move forward? Christians are told to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them— but how do you do this when you are hurting?

This dilemma is what prompted Dave McClow, M.Div., LCSW, LMFT, a therapist at the Pastoral Solutions Institute, to develop a process of healing and forgiveness that he calls the “Fortress and Communion” prayer. This approach helps you protect your heart and transfer negative emotions, ultimately leading to genuine healing and forgiveness.

Understanding the Fortress and Communion Prayer

Dave explained the prayer process in a recent interview with CatholicCounselors.com. When we are hurt, he said, our feelings become dysregulated, and we often turn the people who hurt us into enemies. Moreover, emotional hurt often shows up with physical symptoms.

“When emotions get activated, we get a feeling in our body—it could be in our stomach, chest, shoulders, neck, jaw, eyes, head,” he said. “These physical sensations signal that it’s time to address the underlying emotional pain.”

The Fortress and Communion prayer provides a structured way to begin the healing process and restore a sense of peace and balance, emotionally and physically.

 

Step 1: Building Your Fortress

The first part of the process is about protecting your heart, which McClow describes as creating a “fortress.” He likens it to the walled city of Jerusalem, with your heart being the Holy of Holies at the center of the Temple that must be protected. Visualize this fortress (like the walls around the city) and imagine placing those who have hurt you outside its walls.

McClow suggests that clients use vivid imagery, such as catapulting people out of the fortress, to create a physical and emotional boundary.

“When you get them outside, you want to feel a physiological shift,” he said. This shift might be felt in areas like your stomach or chest, where tension is stored. If the initial boundary doesn’t create enough relief, mentally push them farther away (a tropical island, the moon, Mars, etc.) until you feel a noticeable difference.

Step 2: Transferring Negative Emotions

Once the fortress is established and the hurtful individuals are outside, the next step is to transfer the negative emotions to Jesus. This is where the “communion” aspect comes in. Imagine Jesus on the cross outside your fortress, absorbing all the anger, hurt, and negative energy from the person who hurt you.

“Let all the anger, all the rage, all the hurt from that person go into Jesus,” Dave advised.

This step is about visualizing the transfer of these emotions, allowing Jesus to “take the hit” for you. It’s a deeply spiritual and healing process, McClow said: “Jesus is kind of our emotional sanitation department: he picks up our garbage, processes our sewage, and takes care of it for us.”

Step 3: The Resurrection and Transformation

After transferring the negative emotions to Jesus, ask him to take them through the resurrection. This step involves transforming the negative energy into something positive.

“In physics, you can’t destroy energy; you can only transfer or transform it,” McClow said. “We’ve transferred it; now we’re going to transform it.”

Visualize this transformation as an explosion of love and light, turning the negative into something beautiful. This step can be deeply felt, with some people imagining fireworks or other vivid images.

Step 4: Spiritual Communion

The final step is to ask Jesus to offer spiritual communion to everyone involved. This includes not only yourself and the person who hurt you but also extends to intergenerational healing.

“Ask Jesus to give communion—his infinite love—to everybody involved,” McClow said. “This includes your ancestors, any souls in purgatory connected to the event, and your descendants, ensuring that the healing permeates through generations.”

Sometimes, his clients are still reluctant to ask Jesus to give their enemy or persecutor communion. “If you’re still mad at the bully, you can visualize infinite love knocking him on his butt,” McClow said. “Because infinite love coming into a finite suffering is impactful. So if you need to do that, that’s fine.”

“In the Depths of the Heart’

The Fortress and Communion prayer draws on many sources in the Catholic tradition, but it takes particular inspiration from the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s reflection on the lines about forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer:

“It is there, in fact, ‘in the depths of the heart,’ that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2843).

That quote is the entire process in a nutshell, McClow said: “You can have the memory without the feelings. That’s purifying the memory by transforming hurt into intercession.”

The Fortress and Communion prayer is versatile and can be used in various situations, from dealing with past traumas to handling daily annoyances. Like many forms of contemplative or meditative prayer, it gets easier with practice. At first, you may want to set aside 15 to 30 minutes to walk through the process thoroughly. Once it becomes habitual, you will be able to do it in a few minutes—say, when you’re sitting in a frustrating work meeting or trying to be patient about a crying baby on the plane.

You can see a video walkthrough of the Fortress and Communion Prayer on YouTube.

If you’d like McClow to guide you through the process, or if you’d like to work with another Catholic counselor on healing and forgiveness, reach out at CatholicCounselors.com.

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.

Apocalypse Always: How to Stop Catastrophizing

In the classic children’s book Wemberly Worried, written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, a little mouse named Wemberly worries about everything, big and small: cracks in the sidewalk, noises in the house, taking a bath—and, especially, starting school. No matter the situation, she constantly assumes the worst will happen.

Her constant worrying about what could go wrong is a hallmark of catastrophizing, where the focus is on the most catastrophic outcomes rather than on more likely, benign possibilities. Catastrophizing is an example of what therapists call cognitive distortions: unhelpful “scripts” that we pull out of our subconscious mind to help us interpret our experiences.

Some other examples of catastrophizing:

  • You find a strange mark on your skin and stay up late researching skin cancer. By the morning, you’re a wreck.
  • Your spouse is running late and not answering their phone; your mind starts fixating on the possibility that they were in a serious car accident.
  • You decide you need to leave your dysfunctional workplace, but you’re so focused on the worst possible outcome (not finding a new job, or finding a new job that is even worse) that you can’t take action.

It’s not that these worst-case scenarios aren’t real possibilities: you might have skin cancer, your spouse might have gotten into a serious car accident, you might not get a better job than the one you’re leaving. But are these the only possibilities? No, and they are not even the most likely possibilities. But catastrophic thinking leads us to focus almost exclusively on the worst-case possibilities, causing stress and anxiety without doing us anything good.

“Catastrophic thoughts like these represent Satan’s way of causing us to spend all of our energy on imaginary problems so that we don’t have the strength to deal with the real problems in our lives,” says Dr. Greg Popcak in God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy!

 

Dealing with Catastrophic Thinking

So, what can you do if you recognize yourself catastrophizing in certain situations? Because cognitive distortions are deeply rooted in our subconscious minds—and often related to bad memories of similar situations—it usually isn’t going to work to simply tell yourself to “stop thinking that way.”

If catastrophizing is causing significant problems in your life, you might want to reach out to a therapist for help; you can find many Catholic Pastoral Counselors who draw on psychology and the wisdom of the Catholic tradition at CatholicCounselors.com. Another option would be to work through the process outlined in God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy! or Unworried: A Life without Anxiety, also by Dr. Popcak.

Either way, you’ll be led through a “cognitive restructuring” process that is aimed at challenging and altering negative thought patterns to promote healthier thinking. Here’s a brief outline of what that process might look like:

  1. First, you’ll identify the type of events that trigger your anxious, catastrophic thinking.
  2. Next, you’ll name what this type of event means for you—why does it matter? What does it “say” about who you are, or how others see you?
  3. Then you’ll identify the memories of past experiences that provide the basic template for your catastrophizing way of thinking.
  4. Next, you’ll begin to develop a more helpful way of thinking to replace the unhealthy, unhelpful, catastrophizing script. For people of faith, this involves carefully listening to what the Holy Spirit is whispering to our heart.
  5. Next, you’ll make a conscious connection between this new way of thinking and experiences you’ve had that reinforce the truth of this new script.
  6. Finally, you’ll develop some practical strategies—physical, mental, spiritual, and relational—that you can take to further strengthen your mind’s connection with this new way of thinking.

You can find an abbreviated version of this approach in another post on our blog, “Feeling Overwhelmed? Try This Journaling Exercise.”

Changing old ways of dealing with stress doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t mean we’ll never have another worrying thought.

But remember: God doesn’t want you to live with constant, overwhelming stress. And with the right support and an openness to God’s grace, you don’t have to.

Feeling Overwhelmed? Try This 3-Part Journaling Exercise

In a previous post, we discussed types of self-talk that only make stress and anxiety worse without addressing the root causes. (See “10 Ways of Thinking That Sabotage Your Life.”) Now, let’s look at one strategy for breaking the habit of unhelpful self-talk so that we can practice ways of thinking that actually reduce stress and anxiety.

 

Start by Identifying Old, Unhelpful Scripts

First, a quick review. “Self-talk” is the story we tell ourselves to make sense of our experiences. Unhelpful or harmful self-talk is often a “script” rooted in memories of experiences from our past. When we encounter a similar type of experience, our unconscious brain pulls out the old script and runs through it as a way of making sense of the new situation.

The problem is that the old script doesn’t give us a good handle on the new situation. The old script is what cognitive behavioral therapists call “cognitive distortions,” so named because they distort our perception of reality.

Dr. Greg Popcak explains how to identify the ten most common types of unhelpful self-talk in his book, God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy! A few examples include mind-reading (assuming you know what others are thinking without having sufficient evidence), catastrophizing (expecting the worst-case scenario to happen and seeing it as inevitable), and polarized thinking (viewing situations, people, or yourself in extreme, all-or-nothing terms, without recognizing any middle ground).

But once you’ve identified an old script that’s keeping you from achieving a happier, healthier life, what do you do next?

 

A Journaling Exercise for Rewriting Old Scripts

One option is a three-step journaling exercise that helps you take apart the old script and rewrite a more helpful one. Here’s a summary of the process as Dr. Popcak explains it in God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy!

 

1. Vent about the stressful situation 

Start by writing a single sentence that describes what happened. For example:

I applied for this job I really wanted two weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard back.

Keep it pretty straight-forward, focusing on the bare facts of whatever is causing you stress and anxiety.

Next, vent! Write down what this event means to you. Why is it stressing you out? For example:

I applied for this job I really wanted two weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard back. This is the fifth job I’ve applied for where they never even called to set up an interview. I thought I was a perfect fit, but they obviously don’t think so. I feel worthless, like a complete failure.

 

2. Identify the distortions

 Next, re-read what you wrote as if it were written by a friend; your job is to sort through each statement and separate facts from distortions. Make notes in the margins classifying each statement. For example:

I applied for this job I really wanted two weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard back. (That’s a fact.) This is the fifth job I’ve applied for where they never even called to set up an interview. (Also a fact.) I thought I was a perfect fit, but they obviously don’t think so. (Distortion: mind-reading,) I feel worthless, like a complete failure. (Distortion: polarized thinking, i.e., all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking.)

 

3. Write yourself a helpful letter

Finally, continuing in your role as a helpful friend, write yourself a letter that responds to the facts of the situation in a way that grounds you in reality, puts things in perspective, and offers practical steps that might actually help address the situation. Here’s an example:

Dear friend,

I know job hunting can be discouraging and demoralizing. But don’t make it harder than it is by listening to negative thoughts grounded in faulty thinking! The reality is, there are many possible reasons why these employers didn’t get back to you, including reasons that have nothing to do with you—so stop “mind reading!” And the fact that you didn’t get these jobs doesn’t make you a “failure”; it means you didn’t get those jobs, and that’s it. Plenty of successful people experienced way more rejection before finding success.

Here are three things you can do. First, take some time to pray, and just rest in the assurance of God’s care for you. Second, get some professional help with your job search process: hire a job coach, or take an online course to spruce up your resume. Third, ask around about a Christian job support group you could join, or start one yourself. Getting some friends to support you on the journey will help you keep going.

As you write this letter to yourself, avoid any “empty talk”: platitudes, pep talks, or encouragement that isn’t backed up by evidence. Focus on putting the facts of your situation in a more realistic light and naming practical things you can do to move forward.

This exercise can help you get on top of your stress and anxiety, but for a more comprehensive, one-on-one approach that takes your faith into account, reach out to Dr. Popcak and the therapists at CatholicCounselors.com.

10 Ways of Thinking That Sabotage Your Life

Some ways of thinking help us lead to a healthier, holier, happier life. Other ways of thinking aren’t helpful at all, leading us to powerlessness, isolation, and self-indulgence.

This was one of the key insights of the great spiritual master St. Ignatius of Loyola, who realized that some thoughts (or “movements of the soul”) drew him closer to God and his own well-being, while others led him away from those things.

More than five hundred years later, a similar insight among psychologists would give birth to cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy that has proven effective for treating anxiety and depression.

As Dr. Greg Popcak points out in his book Unworried: A Life without Anxiety, the two frameworks—one spiritual and one more science-based—can both help us identify whether our “self-talk” (the little stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our experience) are healthy, godly, and productive. Identifying unhelpful self-talk can help us take steps to change the unconscious “scripts” that are sabotaging our lives.

Dr. Popcak goes into more detail about St. Ignatius’s approach to discerning helpful and unhelpful thoughts in Unworried, but for now, let’s turn to some of the most common types of unhelpful self-talk identified by cognitive behavioral therapists.

 

The Top Ten Types of Unhelpful “Self-Talk”

The following list of “cognitive distortions” (so-called because they distort our perception of reality) is taken from chapter 2 of Dr. Popcak’s book, God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy!

 1. Mind Reading

Mind reading involves assuming you know what others are thinking without having sufficient evidence.

Example: You’re in a meeting and your boss looks at you briefly with a stern face. You immediately think, “My boss is disappointed with my work,” without any concrete evidence or feedback to support this assumption.

2. Filtering

Filtering involves focusing exclusively on the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive.

Example: You receive feedback on a project. Despite receiving nine positive comments and one slightly critical one, you focus solely on the criticism, ignoring all the positive feedback.

3. Magnification

Magnification is exaggerating the importance or severity of events, often perceiving them as more disastrous than they are.

Example: You make a minor mistake in your report and think, “This is a disaster! It’s going to ruin my entire career,” amplifying the significance of the error.

4. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing involves expecting the worst-case scenario to happen and seeing it as an inevitable outcome.

Example: You feel a mild pain in your back and immediately think, “What if it’s a serious illness? I might end up bedridden and unable to work.”

5. Emotional Reasoning

When you believe that what you feel must be true, even if there is no factual evidence to support it, you’re engaged in emotional reasoning.

Example: You feel anxious about flying and conclude, “Because I feel scared, flying must be a very dangerous way to travel,” even though statistics show it’s quite safe.

6. Polarized Thinking

Polarized thinking involves viewing situations, people, or self in extreme, all-or-nothing terms, without recognizing any middle ground.

Example: You don’t get the promotion you wanted and think, “If I’m not a complete success, I’m a total failure,” seeing things in black-and-white terms.

8. Fallacy of Internal Control

The fallacy of internal control leads you to believe that you are responsible for events and feelings that are actually outside your control.

Example: Your friend is in a bad mood and you think, “It must be because of something I did,” assuming you have more control over others’ emotions than you actually do.

8. Personalizing

Personalizing involves attributing external events or others’ behaviors to yourself, often blaming yourself for things you are not responsible for.

Example: Your spouse is short-tempered one evening and you immediately think, “They must be upset with me,” taking their mood as a reflection of your actions or worth.

9. The ‘Shoulds’

The ‘Shoulds’ involve imposing rigid rules on yourself or others about how people should behave, leading to guilt and frustration when these expectations are not met.

Example: You tell yourself, “I should always be working and productive,” and feel guilty whenever you take time for leisure, imposing rigid rules on yourself.

10. The Fallacy of Change

The fallacy of change means believing that your happiness depends on changing others to meet your expectations or desires.

Example: You believe, “If I can make my partner more outgoing, we’ll be happier,” thinking that changing someone else is the key to your happiness.

 

Changing Unhelpful Self-Talk

These distorted ways of thinking have real consequences for our life, leaving us poorly equipped to deal with things the way they really are. Moreover, a number of studies show that cognitive distortions lead to poor mental health and poor relationship satisfaction.

The good news is that once we recognize our unhelpful self-talk, we can change it—although that can be challenging, given that these self-sabotaging scripts are often deeply rooted in our subconscious brain.

We’ll look at some steps to help us rewrite those scripts in a future post, but if you can’t wait, contact a Catholic therapist at CatholicCounselors.com.

Got the Midwinter Blues? It’s Okay to Take Care of Yourself

Midwinter can be tough on even the sunniest, most upbeat people. The Christmas lights are gone, it’s cold, it’s dark, and once-pristine snow is getting gray and slushy…kind of like a lot of our moods.

That’s doubly true if you’re at home caring for toddlers and preschoolers. The sheer effort required to get out with the kids (boots, hats, gloves) may mean you’re not getting out as much.

During a recent video chat, Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak helped parents in the CatholicHÔM community brainstorm strategies for getting through the winter blues. Their advice? Give yourself a break!

Take a Break from the “Shoulds”

Before the advent of electricity, the dark days of winter were traditionally a time when life slowed down. The lack of daylight forced people to work less and rest more.

You should feel free to embrace that vibe on days when you’re feeling especially “low energy,” Lisa Popcak told parents.

“It’s okay to take care of ourselves as if we were down with the flu,” said Popcak, co-host of More2Life Radio and co-author of Parenting Your Kids with Grace. “This is a day for canned soup and grilled cheese sandwiches! Everything doesn’t need to be ‘on’ all the time.”

All of us can fall victim to a case of the “shoulds” now and then: I should be cleaning the house, I should be doing more at work, I should be volunteering more at school. Stay-at-home parents can be especially prone to the “shoulds,” often out of a felt need to prove they’re being “productive” by the standards of the marketplace.

But Catholic theology clearly prioritizes being over doing. Our worth isn’t measured by our economic output. Sometimes, the best thing to do—for you and the people you interact with—is to take a break.

One creative mother gave herself a break from her active kids by inventing a game she called “What’s on My Butt?” While she lay down on the couch, her kids placed various objects on her bottom, and she had to guess what they were. She got a break, and her kids were entertained.

“It’s not about the doing of things, it’s the being together and making a connection that matters,” Dr. Popcak affirmed.

 

Ask for What You Need

Don’t be afraid to ask your family for what you need to make it through the day.

Maybe due to the example of idealized television families, many of us seem to think that the people closest to us ought to “just know” what we need, Lisa Popcak said. But expecting our loved ones to be mind readers just isn’t realistic.

Be explicit in naming exactly what would help you: “I really need a half-hour break after lunch.” “Could you help me with…?” “It would mean a lot to me if we could spend an hour together this evening.”

You might be pleasantly surprised at how willing your family is to help you out. Even the littlest children will often cooperate with a request that is worded in a way they can understand.

 

Give Your Body a Break, Too

Catholic theologians have long insisted that our bodies are more than “accessories” to our souls (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #364–365). More recently, brain researchers have increasingly shown how much influence the body has on the state of our minds.

If you’re struggling with the midwinter blues, then, be sure that you’re caring for your body in a way that will boost your mood. As Dr. Popcak writes in Unworried: A Life without Anxiety, three practices are especially important to maintaining our ability to handle external stressors. Those three practices are:

  • Sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, most people need between seven to nine hours of good sleep every night in order to function well. Besides healing and recharging the body, your brain does a lot of its most important “maintenance work” during deep sleep. No wonder it’s so critical for mental health!
  • Exercise. Exercise, especially the type that raises your heart rate and leaves you a little short of breath, releases endorphins (natural mood-boosters) and helps stimulate the growth of the hippocampus—the part of the brain that regulates emotion.
  • Good nutrition. What we eat affects how we feel, physically and mentally. Foods rich in magnesium, zinc, probiotics, and B vitamins all have been shown to have a significant positive effect on our mood. In addition, certain nutritional supplements have also been shown to have as much of a positive impact on mood as some prescription medications.

See chapter 6 of Unworried for details on all of these practices.

 

Tap into the Power of Prayer

Prayer is often one of the first things to go when we’re feeling down, which is unfortunate, given how ready God is to help us.

Fortunately, your prayer doesn’t need to be complicated; God responds generously to the simplest, most forthright prayers: “Lord, it’s another cold, gray day. The kids are climbing the walls, the house is a mess, and I’m really struggling. But I trust in your love for me; please give me whatever I need to abide in your love today.”

 

So, to review: Give yourself a break from the “shoulds.” Ask for what you need. Take care of your body. Ask God to supply the grace you need to make it through the day.

These four strategies should be enough to beat your run-of-the-mill winter blues. If you’re struggling with a more serious case of depression or anxiety, though, don’t hesitate to reach out for one-on-one help from a licensed therapist at CatholicCounselors.com.

Who Is Narrating Your Life? How You Answer Has a Big Impact on Your Happiness

In the movie Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS agent who is haunted by the voice of an unseen narrator who offers a running commentary on the events of his life.

Mr. Crick’s unseen narrator turned out to be a frustrated author. But the truth is, each of us have an internal voice that “narrates” the events of our life. The nature of that running commentary shapes the way we react to situations and events—and that, in turn, has a big impact on our overall happiness.

Like Mr. Crick, then, it’s a good idea to occasionally interrogate that internal narrator.

Interrogating Our Narrator

In his book, God Help Me! This Stress Is Driving Me Crazy!, Dr. Greg Popcak proposes a simple exercise. Whenever you hear that unbidden voice interpreting a situation or event in your life, stop and ask: Is this thought true or false?

In the context of this exercise, we’re not so much analyzing the factual accuracy of the thought. Most of the time, our internal narrator’s interpretation of events contains at least a grain of truth. Rather, we’re trying to determine whether the thought leads us to the richer, more joyful life that God wants for us.

“We know that a thought or feeling is true (healthy, productive, rational) if acting on that thought or feeling would lead us to experience a greater degree of hope, confidence, competence, intimacy, security, peace, strength, and so on, even in the face of problems,” Dr. Popcak writes. “On the other hand, we know a thought or feeling is false (not of God, who is ‘the way and the truth and the life’) if acting on that thought or feeling would lead to hopelessness, confusion, doubt, anxiety, despair, estrangement, insecurity, ignorance, or incompetence, none of which come from God.”

Let’s look at an example. Your boss asks to meet with you on Friday without specifying the reason for the meeting. How does your inner voice narrate this situation?

Here’s one option: “Is she mad at me? Did I do something to upset her? What if she fires me? I don’t need this kind of stress!” This is an example of a “false” thought—not because it is inaccurate, but because it doesn’t help you deal with the situation. You can tell this thought is not from God because it leads to worry, hopelessness, and despair, none of which do anything to help you.

Here’s another option: “I wonder what she wants to meet about? I guess I won’t know until Friday. I’ll just have to wait and see what happens. I’m a little nervous, though; maybe I need to pray for peace.” This thought is “true” because it provides a helpful path forward.

Let’s take another example. Martha looks at her calendar for the week; it’s crammed with medical appointments, school events, and work obligations—and that’s on top of her usual busy routine.

Her interior narrator might respond negatively: “I am so overwhelmed! There’s no way I can juggle all this. If one more person puts one more thing on my plate, I’m going to scream.” Those thoughts are “false” because they don’t lead to more peace. They don’t come from God; in fact, they obscure God’s will for Martha’s well-being.

On the other hand, her internal narrator might respond more “truthfully”: “This is way too much for one person to handle. To get through the week, I’m going to have to drop some of these commitments or hand them off to someone else. I need a plan!” This way of narrating her situation might not make it magically better, but it provides a more hopeful path forward.

Tuning into God’s Grace

Both of these scenarios illustrate the power that our internal narration—what psychology calls our “automatic thoughts”—has over the quality of our day-to-day lives. False thoughts send us down a path where we waste energy, spin our wheels, and stew in stress. Worse, these noisy thoughts often distract us from the help and comfort God offers us. True thoughts, on the other hand, help us tune into God’s grace. And when we’re tuned into God, he opens our eyes to new possibilities and strengthens us to get through tough situations.

The key is to be more intentional about what our internal narrator is telling us. Like Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction, we need to confront our own personal narrators. If they’re not reading from God’s script, then we need to change that.

Poor Harold Crick had to get hit by a bus in order to get a new script. Thankfully, most of us won’t have to go to such lengths. If you need some professional, faith-based help, though, connect with a Catholic counselor at CatholicCounselors.com.

Carrying Your Cross—Concrete Steps to Overcoming Difficulties

 

Life can feel like one challenge after the next. Or maybe, when things are good, we have a hard time trusting the good, because it feels like we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak.

The Theology Of The Body reminds us that although the world is fallen, God is working through us to rebuild his kingdom. Carrying our cross doesn’t mean just learning to put up with the problems and frustrations of this broken world, but rather to face them with strength and virtue and where possible, through God’s grace, to overcome them. Pope St. John Paul reminded us that focusing on what God created us and the world to be is more important than focusing on what we and the world are today.

We tend to get frustrated when we have to deal with persistent problems, challenges, and stressors. Of course, that’s understandable. But when we look through the lens of the Theology of the Body, we can see that God is always giving us the grace we need to bounce back in the face of trials and respond in ways that help us to cooperate with his grace and make a positive difference. As Christians, we’re called to do whatever we can to show the world that God’s power is always working in us–even in the middle of persistent problems–and that he is giving us the ability to make whatever challenge we’re facing better–even if just in small ways.

It’s true that some days that work can seem harder than others.  But there are a few tips we can draw from the Theology of the Body to persevere even when we start to doubt ourselves or feel worn down.  First we need to keep our eyes, not on what’s in front of us, but rather on how God wants to work through us to make the situation into what he wants it to be. Second, we need to remember that it isn’t all up to us.  We need to keep bringing the situation to God–not just once, but again and agin until its resolved– and ask him to help us discern the next small step.  Third, we need to lean into virtue–that is, the spiritual strengths God wants to give us.  We need to prayerfully ask, “What are the virtues or strengths would help me overcome this challenge and what would it look like to practice them?”  Fourth, we need to look at failure–not as a closed door–but as feedback that we bring back to prayer and then leads us back thought these steps until we find the solution.  If we can work this process, we can fulfill the promise that St Paul makes in Romans 8:28 that to those who love God, all things work to the good.

Here are three practical steps to accomplish the above points:

1.  Center Yourself– When you’re struggling to recover from a setback or disappointment, before doing anything else, the first step has to be centering yourself. Bring the situation to God, pray, “Lord, help me rest in you, trust in your grace, and gather the resources and support I need to make a plan and see this through.”  Then refocus on a goal–any goal–that represents the next small step you can take.  You’ll feel less like running away if you can identify the next step forward and focus on gathering the resources to help you take that next step.

2.  Get Out of the Tunnel–We often find it hard to bounce back from disappointments or challenges because tunnel vision causes us to get stuck trying to find the one big thing we can do to solve this problem once and for all. Especially with more complicated situations, there is rarely one thing you can do to make the problem disappear. Instead, concentrate on the next small thing you can do to either address the problem or insulate yourself from the problem or both. Focusing on small steps you can take in several areas– instead of searching for ultimate answers to the one big question–allows you to come out of the tunnel and begin to see new options on the horizon.

3. Make A “Got It Done” List–We all know about To-Do lists but what about making a “Got it Done” list?  Sometimes we struggle with bouncing back from a problem or setbacks because we feel like we’re  just not up to the challenge.  You can combat these feelings by intentionally calling to mind–and better yet, writing down–all the past times in your life when you were sure you weren’t up to a challenge but, through God’s grace and your good efforts, you managed to succeed.  Making a “Got It Done List” will help you remember that you have conquered many difficult situations before and remind you that between you and God, there is nothing you can’t handle moving forward.

Looking for more practical steps to navigating life’s challenges? Check out our videos, books, and pastoral tele-counseling services at CatholicCounselors.com.

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Quick Links and Resources:

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God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts!

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Beating Burnout

Are you feeling a lack of connection, struggling with motivation, feeling bored or constantly overwhelmed? If this feels familiar, you’re probably experiencing burnout. 

To put it simply, burnout is “effort minus meaning.” The Theology of The Body (TOB) speaks to this when it reminds us of the difference between work and toil. Before the Fall, the work that Adam and Eve did to tend the garden was joyful and fulfilling. It had purpose and meaning, and their efforts literally produced good fruit. After the Fall, because sin knocked the entire world out of order, work became toil. The earth fought back against their efforts to cultivate it. Their work felt like a struggle. They lost sight of the purpose of their efforts. Work became something that divided them instead of making them feel united for a common purpose. This is the basis of burnout–when our efforts seem meaningless.

Reclaiming our joy in the face of burnout means reconnecting with the meaning and purpose behind what we’re doing and approaching our work and relationships in a way that enables us to feel more connected to God, the people around us, and our own best-selves. Often it takes making a conscious effort to step back from what we’re doing and intentionally reminding ourselves why we’re doing it, who we’re doing it for, and what our goal is in choosing to do it in the first place. Then, we need to ask ourselves if the way we’re doing something is really serving those goals. If not, it’s time to make some changes. God doesn’t want us to settle for grinding our way through the day in our work, life, or relationships. Burnout can be a sign that we’re starting to settle and that we need to step back, and practice what the TOB calls “receptivity” by giving our situation to God, asking him how He wants us to approach the work, role, or challenges in front of us, and listening for His voice to guide us through.  If we do this, his grace will bring the meaning, purpose, and joy back into everything we do.

1.  Remember Where You’ve Been–When we’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, it’s easy to get stuck in the moment and feel like there’s no end in sight. To get some stress-relieving perspective, step back and remember all the other times you were able to overcome the stresses and challenges you were facing. Remember God’s faithfulness through past trials. Praise him for the ways he has been present to you all along. Recall the ways you worked with his grace to keep yourself together through those times and ask yourself how you could take advantage of similar strategies this time around. Sometimes, the fastest way to get where you’re going is to remember where you’ve been and all the things God has helped you overcome to get you where you are.  Remember that someday you’ll be looking back on this present, stressful time as just one more mountain you’ve conquered through God’s grace and your faithful efforts to persevere.

2.  Tap Your Reserves–The best way to understand burnout is to think of it as an increase in stress combined with a loss of meaningfulness. Often, when we get stressed, we try to conserve our strength by only using as little energy as possible to accomplish the tasks that are associated with our life or relationships. We phone in our work. We keep taking the easy way through the day, and checking out of difficult relationships. This can be OK for a day or two when we just need a little time to collect ourselves, but if it becomes habit, this can create burnout, as we feel our lives becoming both more stressful and less meaningful. What can we do? We have to tap our reserves. Ask yourself, how could you bring just a little more of yourself and your creativity to this work or relationship? What might make it fun again? Do you need to change your approach? Learn new skills? Get new help? Take things a little less seriously? Ironically, the best way to beat burnout is to bring MORE of yourself to your tasks and relationships. The more you can convince yourself to tap your reserves, stop going through the motions and reinvest in your life, the happier–and more stress-proof–you’ll be.

3.  Check Your Cables–Sometimes, when a piece of equipment won’t work, fixing it is as simple as checking to make sure it’s still plugged in. The same is true for us. When stress has got us to the point where it’s difficult to find the energy to move, we need to check our cables and make sure we’re still plugged in—to God and the people who love us. Stop trying to do it all yourself. Give the situation to God. Tell him how tired you are and how much you need his grace, not only to keep going, but to approach the situation in a new way so that you can glorify him. Then reach out to the people around you. Let them know that you need their help–both in terms of emotional support and practical help. Let the people who love you actually love you and work for your good through this trying time. The more we work on staying connected to our power source–that is, grace and the good people who share our lives–the more energy we’ll have to enjoy the work God has given us to do.

For more resources on beating burnout, check out:

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Unworried: A Life Without Anxiety

The Life God Wants You To Have

Fasting From Falsehood

The Lenten season has arrived. For some, this season is a time of great healing, blessings, and connectedness to God. For others, this time is challenging or comes with feelings of sadness or suffering. But what really is the point of Lent? And whether it is difficult or peaceful, how can we use this time to strengthen our relationship with God? 

A common Lenten practice focuses on sacrificing, or giving something up for 40 days. The intention of this is to say, “Lord, I love you more than I love this thing that I am giving up.” Then, each time we think about the thing we have sacrificed, or have a desire for what are fasting from, we instead shift our focus to the Lord and do something in that moment that leads us closer to Him. However, it’s easy for this practice of sacrificing to become twisted into the belief that we are meant to suffer throughout Lent (or in general). While this is not the case, there are two important things to address about suffering in order to understand why. 

First, we must recognize that we are not called to just suffer. Jesus did not suffer for the sake of suffering, he suffered to work for a greater good—for our greater good. This is the difference between suffering and redemptive suffering. Suffering without meaning is misery. Suffering with meaning, however, is redemptive suffering—and redemptive suffering leads to healing, works for a greater good, and leads us closer to God.

Second, it is important to understand the difference between what St. Ignatius referred to as Consolations and Desolations. Consolations are movements of the Holy Spirit that lead us closer to God and help us move towards meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue in our life and our relationships. Desolations are moments where satan is whispering in our ear and we are being lead towards feelings of powerlessness, isolation, and self pity and/or self indulgence. Now, this does not mean that consolations always feel good and desolations always feel bad. Consolations can sometimes be very difficult, sometimes they don’t feel good at all in the moment—but they do ultimately lead us towards meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue. 

So how do these concepts relate to our Lenten practice? If making some sort of Lenten sacrifice leads you towards greater healing through meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue, then that can be a wonderful focus for the next 40 days. However, if giving something up leads towards a sense of powerless, isolation, or self pity/self indulgence and feelings of empty suffering, God might be calling you to focus on something different this Lent. Perhaps if you struggle with self esteem or self acceptance a helpful Lenten practice would be to focus on taking care of yourself. This might be difficult, but would lead you closer to God by being a good steward of God’s creation in you. Maybe if your tendency is to bury your feelings or hide your feelings behind an unhealthy coping mechanism a fruitful Lenten practice would be to begin journaling daily or seek counseling. Again, this may feel uncomfortable, but would be a practice of redemptive suffering which would lead you towards greater healing and strengthen your relationship with God.

These are only two examples, however the goal and focus of Lent is to grow in relationship with God and to move us closer to becoming the whole, healed, godly, grace-filled selves we were created to be. 

If you need support throughout your Lenten journey or would like to learn more about how to move from a place of desolation to a place of consolation, check out The Life God Wants You To Have, or reach out to our Pastoral Counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.