4 Questions to Help You ­Discern the Next Chapter of Your Life

The heroes of the Bible had it easy, didn’t they? Anytime God wanted to communicate his will to them, he sent an angel or a burning bush or a prophet or a patch of wet wool (see Judges 6:36-40 for that last one).

For the rest of us, discerning major life decisions can feel a lot more difficult:

  • Should I marry this person or not?
  • What field of work should I study for?
  • Should I take this job or not?
  • Is it time to end this relationship?
  • Where am I going to put my time and energy during my retirement?

Most of us wish God would just telegram us with the “right choice”; Instead, he invites us to engage in a richer, more dynamic conversation with the Holy Spirit.

Fortunately, he has also given us some basic principles to follow as we have that conversation with him. Drawing on those principles, here are four questions that the Pastoral Counselors at the CatholicCounselors.com suggest you ask as you prayerfully discern your next big life decision.

1. What will bring you closer to God?

It’s tempting to focus on the immediate consequences of a big decision, but it’s important to always prioritize our ultimate destination.

“The end goal of every decision we make needs to be directed towards one thing: knowing and loving God more,” says Jacob Francisco, M.A., LMHC.

A prerequisite for good discernment, then, is that we’re trying our best to lead a good and holy life: staying connected to the church, receiving the sacraments, and basically trying to do what God wants in the decisions of our daily life, said Dr. Greg Popcak.

For Christians, this also means respecting the “guardrails” that God provides to keep us on the right course.

“God’s never going to ask us to do something that’s contrary to the Ten Commandments or the teachings of the Church,” Dr. Popcak said. Those teachings are part of a 4,000-year-old conversation that God has been having with his people. “He’s not going to just randomly say to us, ‘Well, I’m going to make an exception for you.’”

2. What is your heart’s deepest desire?

One common misconception is that following God’s will means denying our own happiness—but that’s just not the case, says Jacob Flores-Popcak, M.A., L.P.C.

He sees a lot of Catholics assume that if they have two options, “it’s the one I don’t like that’s probably the one God is calling me to in order to help me grow in humility or holiness or whatever.”

It’s true that God may call us to do something difficult or unpleasant for the sake of our own long-term well-being. Exercise can be tough, for example, but in the long run, it makes us stronger.

Still, that doesn’t mean that the hard, unpleasant thing is automatically the good thing. “God is not asking you to just randomly seek out crosses to nail yourself to,” Flores-Popcak said.

Keeping in mind that God wants our happiness, we can begin our discernment by reflecting on the deep desires of our heart, said Anne Brunette, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.

“God will put a desire on your heart before he calls you to it,” Brunette said.

The principle that the deep desires of our heart can help us discern our course in life is a key feature of the discernment approach developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius taught that our problem wasn’t desiring too much but desiring too little. In other words, we need to move beyond our petty, superficial desires and instead pursue the desires that lead us to the bountiful life God wants for us.

3. What leads to more meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue?

And what does that bountiful life look like? Dr. Popcak suggests that the life God wants for us is always characterized by meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue.

We lead a meaningful life by using our gifts to be a blessing to others and to make a positive difference in whatever we do, he said.

Intimacy is about fostering deeper relationships with God and others. When we’re prayerfully discerning a choice, then, we can ask: What allows me to make my relationships healthier, stronger, deeper, and more honest?

And virtue, the third guiding principle, is about seeing every situation as an opportunity to become a stronger, healthier, holier person—that is, more fully the person God made us to be.

“So, in discerning God’s will for our lives, we’ve always got to ask, ‘How can I use the thing I’m going through right now to become a little bit more of that whole, healed, godly, grace-filled person I’m meant to be?” Dr. Popcak said.

4. How does God want me to move forward?

Finally, it’s good to ask God not just what he wants us to do, but how he wants us to do it, Dr. Popcak said.

For example, it’s pretty clear that God wants us to share his message of good news with the world. But how we do that matters; we need to approach that task with love and respect, taking into consideration the circumstances of the person in front of us.

The same is true of our big life decisions. We might be called to end a relationship, for instance, but we also want to prayerfully discern how we can do that in a way that leads to the best outcome for the other person as well as ourselves.

Looking for more discernment advice? Check out The Life God Wants You to Have: Discovering the Divine Plan When Human Plans Fail by Dr. Greg Popcak. And you can get one-on-one guidance from any of the Catholic counselors at the Pastoral Solutions Institute by reaching out at CatholicCounselors.com.

How Happy Couples Find Time to Connect

If you want a happy marriage, one of the simplest, most effective ways to get there is to spend time connecting with your spouse every day.

It’s such a simple marriage hack that many couples who come to the Pastoral Solutions Institute are initially skeptical of the recommendation, according to Dr. Greg Popcak.

“You’d be surprised by how many couples are downright disappointed to think that something as simple as having dinner together four times a week and instituting a weekly date could change so much,” he writes in his book, How to Heal Your Marriage: And Nurture Lasting Love. Just as strong bones support a healthy body, he says, regular “rituals of connection” are essential for supporting a healthy relationship.

The importance of regular rituals of connection for strengthening a relationship is well documented in more than six decades of research. Couples who find time to regularly work, talk, play, and pray together report much higher levels of satisfaction across every aspect of their lives than those who do not. They are much less likely to run into problems with their relationship, too.

That research has been backed up time and time again by the experience of the counselors at the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

“I had a couple that started counseling due to a number of communication struggles,” says Robert Taylor, MS, MSW, LCSW. “When I asked them to start small with the rituals of connection, they began with a simple, quick morning prayer ritual that eventually expanded to some brief talk time to check in with each other on the needs of the day.”

Over time, this practice helped the couple to be more in tune with one another and greatly reduced the resentment that had built up due to their lack of connection, he said.

Happy Couples Prioritize Time Together

The main reason many couples object to these rituals of connection is their perception that they don’t have the time to fit them in, said Dave McClow, M.Div., LCSW, LMFT: “Usually, the big objection or complaint is: ‘We’re too busy!’”

These couples are often trying to find “extra” time to connect in their busy schedules. But happy couples do just the opposite: they prioritize their time together, and then work out the rest of their schedule.

It doesn’t need to be complicated, McClow said. “I ask couples to break it down into a five- or ten-minute activity and tie it to something they are already doing, like meals or bedtime,” he said. “That makes it more doable, and they don’t have to create another space in the schedule.”

Don’t Divide Up the Day’s Work; Do It Together

Working on things together rather than dividing up the day’s work is often a good way for couples to spend more time together, said Judi Phillips, MS, LMHC.

She once counseled a busy couple with high-powered jobs and three small children.

“When I first suggested rituals of connection to them, they said, ‘Judi, you’re crazy, there is no way!’” she recalled. “So, I talked with them about how they could use the ways in which they were already together to be more intentional in their connections.”

Instead of taking their usual approach of dividing and conquering the work of putting the kids to bed, for instance, they did it together. Then, after the children were in bed, they made sure to have meaningful conversations not related to the logistics of the day. They shared something interesting they had seen or read during the day and shared their thoughts about it.

Those simple commitments had an almost magical effect on their relationship.

“They came back and reported to me that they felt more connected to one another than ever,” Phillips said. Instead of seeing these times of connection as one more thing to do, they actually began looking forward to them. Plus, they found themselves giving one another more leeway when one of them was irritable or defensive.

In the end, the couple became really committed to these regular opportunities to connect, Phillips said: “They said there was no way they would ever let it go because they found how it so significantly and positively influenced their relationship.”

You can learn more about marital rituals of connection in How to Heal Your Marriage: And Nurture Lasting Love. Or, if you need more one-on-one relationship counseling, reach out to the Catholic counselors of the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

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.

Does Jesus Want Us to be ‘Nice’ to the Difficult People in Our Lives?


“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).

Jesus couldn’t have been more clear that following him means imitating the Father’s radically generous, unconditional love. He didn’t just preach this love; he embodied it through his death on the cross, and he expected his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

Over the centuries, those words have inspired countless Christians to heroic acts of love, sometimes to the point of sacrificing their lives.

Unfortunately, too many Christians also take Jesus’ teaching to mean that they ought to patiently put up with bad behavior from difficult—or even abusive—people.

But as Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak frequently point out to callers on their More2Life radio show, that’s a serious misunderstanding of Jesus’ call to radical love. In fact, such an approach may not be loving at all.

 

Jesus Wasn’t Always ‘Nice’

To see why Christian love sometimes calls for us to stand up for ourselves, set healthy boundaries, and in some cases, even end a relationship, we need to get a fuller picture of who Jesus really was.

Jesus dealt with “difficult” people all the time. Sometimes, those difficult people were even his closest friends! Other times, they were religious authorities who had it out for him.

Did Jesus quietly tolerate problematic behavior in the interest of “being nice”? He certainly stood up to the religious leaders who opposed him, often in forceful terms that left no question about their need for a change of heart.

Nor did he let his friends off the hook when they went astray. He famously rebuked Peter just moments after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Son of God (Matthew 16:23).

At the same time, Jesus met known sinners with tenderness and mercy: think of his encounter with Zacchaeus or the woman caught in adultery, for example.

 

Real Love Works for the Good of the Other

Each of these very different approaches had a common motivation: Jesus’ genuine love for the person, tuned to achieve the good of the person he was encountering. As St. Thomas Aquinas would later put it, Christ-like love “wills the good of the other.” Christian love cooperates with God to help the other person become fully the person God desires them to be.

At the heart of our love for anybody, then, is the question: “What do I need to do to help this person achieve the good that God wants for him or her?”

In a healthy relationship, the answer would begin with the needs and desires of the other person. But in the case of someone whose problematic behavior is causing real, ongoing harm to us or other people, the bar is a lot lower. In these cases, really loving the person begins with not letting them mistreat you or other people. Instead, it begins with helping them become a better person.

Usually, the first step is to engage the person in a respectful, cooperative conversation about how to change the problem behavior. In God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace with Difficult People, Dr. Popcak outlines a five-step process for doing that.

If a person isn’t open to cooperatively working on the problem, then the next step might be setting limits or boundaries on the relationship. Ideally, these boundaries are targeted at the problem behavior and don’t cut off the relationship completely.

Sometimes, though, it is necessary to end the relationship entirely, especially if your life or health are in danger. As the Church teaches, we have a duty to care for our own life (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2264).

 

The Love of the Cross

At this point, you may wonder how Jesus’ call for his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” fits into the picture of Christian life. After all, plenty of saints have suffered, and even given their life, for the sake of Christ.

What distinguishes the sacrifice of the cross, though, is that it served a higher purpose; Jesus sacrificed his life to save all humanity. The sacrifices of the saints and martyrs participated in that sacrifice. For instance, saints such as Maximilian Kolbe, Gianna Beretta Molla, Oscar Romero, and Maria Goretti sacrificed their lives in order to save another life, or to stand up for truth and justice.

Each of us has everyday opportunities to practice this sort of sacrificial love: quietly putting up with a spouse’s annoying but harmless habit, getting up with the baby so your spouse can get some much-needed rest, ignoring a stranger’s rudeness out of charity.

But if you’re dealing with someone whose behavior is causing real problems, then ask yourself: Is putting up with this behavior really the best way to love this person? Does it serve Christ and the Kingdom of God?

If the answer is “no,” then it might be time to imitate Jesus’ other ways of loving difficult people.

For much more on this topic, check out God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! And if you need professional, one-on-one help navigating a difficult relationship, reach out to one of the Catholic counselors 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.

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.

Want to Handle Conflict Better? Take Your Emotional Temperature

Hurricanes are measured on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, and earthquakes are rated on the Modified Mercalli intensity scale.

Human stress can be measured, too, using the Stress Temperature Scale (sometimes known as an Emotional Temperature Scale). Unlike hurricanes and earthquakes, though, keeping track of your emotional temperature can be really useful for avoiding conflict with other people—and handling it better when it’s unavoidable.

By regularly monitoring your emotional temperature, you can take steps to lower it before it gets too hot. This is useful because when our emotional temperature gets too high, the problem-solving part of our brain tends to go “offline” and the reactive, “fight or flight” part of our brain takes over.

That’s not a problem if we’re facing an imminent physical threat, but in the context of human relationships, the reactive brain almost always makes things worse.

Over a period of days or weeks, keep a notebook where you track your emotional temperature several times a day. You can also jot down “triggers” that make your emotional temperature spike, and how you tend to react when that happens.

Here’s the Stress Temperature Scale as outlined in Dr. Greg Popcak’s book How to Heal Your Marriage: And Nurture Lasting Love. You can find another version of this tool geared toward kids in the books Parenting Your Kids with Grace and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace, both by Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak.

 

The Emotional Temperature Scale

1–2: Relaxed. At this level, you’re pretty “chill.” You’re not really focused on any problems or challenges; your heart and respiration rate are in the low to normal range. You’re mainly warm and affectionate toward others.

3–4: Relaxed but alert. You’re engaged with and alert to your surroundings and getting along well with others. Whatever challenges you may be facing feel manageable.

5: Alert and focused. At this level, you’re still working well with others, but you may feel a little distracted by problems or concerns that are taking more of your attention. You’re working a little harder to meet challenges, but they still feel manageable.

6: Alert and stressed. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline begin to be released. On the surface, you seem to be in control of your reactions, although some people might comment that you “seem a little off.” You’re distracted, and it may be difficult for others to get your attention. You need to make a conscious effort to be polite and pleasant in interactions with others. It feels like you’re struggling to stay on top of things.

7: Irritable. As stress hormones continue to flood your bloodstream, the part of your brain that filters nonverbal signs of disgust and irritation begins to go offline. You may sigh, roll your eyes, fidget, or otherwise show your irritation. At the higher end of 7, you may avoid eye contact with others. The problem-solving part of your brain is still engaged, but just barely.

At this point, people who are attuned to their emotional temperature will know to take a break or find another way to lower their stress level.

8: Angry. Now your nonverbal filters are definitely not working, and your verbal filters have begun to collapse: your tone of voice and choice of words definitely betrays your anger, although you aren’t yet raising your voice or using insults. Different personalities express anger in different ways. Some people withdraw, becoming quiet or sullen and pouty. Others may “tantrum,” engaging in emotional manipulation and finger-pointing. Still others may take a superior attitude, offering lengthy explanations of why they’re right and others are wrong.

Emotionally savvy people know to walk away from the conversation once they hit this point, taking a long break to cool down, pray, reflect, and otherwise regain control.

9: Very angry and feeling like a victim. Now your verbal filters have completely collapsed. If you tend towards pouting or withdrawing, you will probably be shut down for the rest of the day. This is when the name-calling, insults, and raised voices begin, all of which will seem perfectly justified by the circumstances or the other person’s behavior.

10: Outraged and out of control. Now your brain’s physical filters have shut down; doors are slammed, tables pounded, random objects thrown or kicked. At this point, people may physically hurt one another.

 

Keep It Under 7 or 8

Tracking your emotional temperature in a notebook over the course of a week will help you identify strategies for keeping your stress level below an 8, the point at which your brain stops being able to solve problems effectively, and the point at which the primitive fight-or-flight part of your brain takes over. Record your stress responses, and write down ideas for how you’d prefer to handle things in the future.

For strategies to help you lower your emotional temperature, check out Dr. Popcak’s book, God Help Me! This Stress Is Driving Me Crazy! along with other titles such as How to Heal Your Marriage: And Nurture Lasting Love and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace. And if you need professional help managing your anger, reach out to a Catholic counselor at CatholicCounselors.com.

Five Ways Happy Couples Fight Differently

Conflict is an inevitable part of human relationships; even the happiest of couples experience it sooner or later.

But surprisingly, research shows that happily married couples “fight” differently than others. While many couples fall into an adversarial, combative mindset, happy couples tend to take more of a team approach. Their priority isn’t winning the argument. Instead, it’s solving the problem in a way that respects their spouse and strengthens their marriage.

Just as great sports teams support one another even in tough situations, couples with a team mindset go out of their way to make sure that their spouse feels loved and cared for. In fact, research finds that happily married couples have five positive interactions for every negative interaction—even during conflicts.

What does this look like in practice? In his book How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love, Dr. Greg Popcak describes some of the strategies couples can use to navigate conflicts in a more loving, caring way. Here are five to try the next time you find things heating up between you and your spouse (or other conversation partner).

 

1. Give a Heads Up Before Difficult Conversations

If you know you need to tackle a tough conversation, try scheduling the conversation with your partner for a later time—and do it in a way that sets the tone for a cooperative, problem-focused conversation. For example: “Hey, I feel like we need to talk about (topic). Could we make some time to do that tonight? I know this isn’t a conversation either of us really enjoys, but let’s think about how we want to handle it between now and then. I’m interested in hearing your ideas.”

 

2. Turn to God for Help

Christian couples have an extra resource to help them manage conflict: the power of prayer. Praying before, during, and after a hard conversation grounds your relationship in the larger reality of God’s love for both of you, opening you to receive God’s help.

You can maximize the power of prayer by praying together, out loud: “Lord, you know how difficult this conversation is for us. Give us the grace to be both loving and truthful with one another, and help us be open to your will for us. Amen.”

 

3. Complain, but Don’t Criticize

At a minimum, couples who take a teamwork approach to conflict focus on solving the problem, not attacking one another. It’s all right to complain. But when that complaint becomes a personal criticism—when you name your partner as the problem—you’re headed for a contentious, unproductive argument.

Here’s a personal criticism: “You obviously have no money management skills; I can’t trust you with a debit card.” And here’s the same issue framed as a complaint: “When you go over the budget we agreed on, it makes me feel frustrated and anxious.” The first statement locates the problem in the partner; the second states two facts (the state of the budget and your feelings about it) that pose a problem to be solved.

 

4. Offering Encouragement and Affirmation

High-functioning teams offer one another words and gestures of support even when they’re in a tough spot. The same goes for happy couples during hard conversations.

You can reaffirm your bond and create a supportive atmosphere with a simple gesture—reaching out to hold your spouse’s hand, for instance, or offering them a tissue or glass of water. A few well-chosen words of affirmation can work magic, too: “Hey, it’s going to be okay. We’ve gotten through worse.”

 

5. Take Mini-Breaks When Things Get Too Hot

Another way couples can care for one another when a conflict starts getting too contentious is to take a short break. The point of the break isn’t to avoid the situation; rather, it’s to give yourselves a chance to calm down and refocus the conversation.

During your mini-break (five or ten minutes may be enough), work on empathizing with your partner and his or her position (even if you don’t agree with it). Then, ask yourself what you can do to shift the conversation to a more solution-focused mindset.

 

For couples who handle conflict in this way, it doesn’t drive them apart—instead, it results in a stronger, happier relationship. And that makes sense: After all, what better testament to true love is there than caring for your partner even when they’re driving you a little crazy?

You can learn much more about this topic in the “Caretaking in Conflict” chapter of Dr. Popcak’s book, How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love. And if you could use some professional help with your marriage or other relationships, reach out to one of the Catholic counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.

But I don’t want to spoil them!–How to Have a Healthy and Positive Relationship With Your Child

I want to have a good relationship with my kids but I don’t want to spoil them!”

Does this statement feel familiar?

Attachment does not mean that you have to give your children everything they want, when they want it, and how they want it. It means listening to them, taking the time to understand why they want the things they want, and—if you can’t let them—brainstorming more godly and efficient ways that you could help them meet at least some of those needs in the here and now.

Alternatively, if you have to say no, as parents often must, it is always for a good and objective reason (for instance, your child’s safety or well-being) and not just because you don’t feel like it or because you reactively tend to say no to things out of stress and irritability.

In infancy and toddlerhood, fostering healthy attachment means responding promptly, generously, and consistently to cries. It means trusting the schedule God has built into your child for sleeping, feeding, and comforting and not making your child “cry it out” at night, or cry for long periods as a matter of habit during the day. Crying is never good for a child. It always means he needs help in regulating some system in his body (Sunderland, 2008). God gives parents the responsibility to attend to those cries promptly, just as he tells us He does in Psalm 34:4. “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

As your child matures through childhood and adolescence, his needs become more complicated to meet. Parents should, as much as possible, use the “qualified-yes” technique in responding to these needs unless the request is for something that is truly contrary to the child’s well-being. For instance, if a child asked for something the parent couldn’t afford, the qualified-yes technique would have the parent say, “I can afford to contribute only X toward that, but let’s talk about ways you might be able to earn the difference if it is that important to you. Otherwise, this is what I can do. What do you think?” This would be as opposed to saying, for instance, “You want me to spend $250 on a pair of sneakers? Are you crazy?”

With the qualified-yes technique, the child learns that the parent is always someone to whom he can turn to get help in meeting his needs or making a plan by which those needs could be met. Because of this, even when the parent can’t supply what the child wants or needs, the child still feels attached because he has been heard and helped to come up with a plan. And, if the child decides that having that thing really isn’t worth the effort after all, it is he who makes that decision, and not the parent who makes himself an obstacle to achieving that need or want.

For more on how to use the qualified-yes technique as a way of fostering attachment through childhood and adolescence, check out our books Parenting Your Kids With Grace and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens With Grace!

 

Quick Links and Resources:

Parenting Your Kids With Grace

Parenting Your Teens and Tweens With Grace

Discovering God Together

How To Put The Brakes On Anxiety

“Try taking a few deep breaths.”

If you frequently suffer from anxiety, you’ve probably heard this advice, but a lot of people dismiss it out of hand: How are a few deep breaths going to fix things? I’m facing a real crisis here!

It’s true that deep breathing won’t make the cause of your stress go away. But it’s also true that this technique is really good at putting the brakes on anxiety, helping you calm down enough to address the cause of your stress more effectively. God designed our bodies with this feature, so why not use it?

To understand why deep, controlled breathing works, it helps to understand a little about the physical roots of anxiety.

Your Body’s Emergency Response System

Picture Alex, a firefighter, in the moments after an emergency call comes into the firehouse. He springs into action, grabbing equipment as he races to the fire truck; in a moment, he and his crewmates head out, sirens blaring and lights flashing.

Meanwhile, a similar scene unfolds inside Alex’s body. Seconds after the emergency call spurs Alex into action, his hypothalamus releases hormones that mobilize the body’s defense systems. Alex’s heart rate increases, his breath comes more quickly, the pupils of his eyes dilate, and blood and energy are diverted to his muscles and other vital organs.

This is the same physiological response that has turbo-charged humans’ bodies in the face of danger for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s what Alex needs in order to perform his best when he gets to the scene of the emergency.

When Your Brain Issues a False Alarm

But what happens when the brain sounds the alarm in a situation that doesn’t require a short-term, high-performance physical response? What if, for instance, you have serious financial worries that keep you up at night for hours at a time, your mind racing? Or what if you have to attend a social event at your new job, and you spend days worrying about what could go wrong—or worse, days replaying and critiquing every interaction you had at the party?

When your brain deploys an outsized physiological response to a situation that doesn’t really call for it, the result is anxiety. Unlike the boost that Alex got, the physiological effects of anxiety aren’t helpful; in fact, they can be downright harmful. Will a racing mind or heart help you address your financial problems? No. Will sweaty hands, a clenched stomach, and shortness of breath help you navigate the social labyrinth of your workplace party? Not likely. In fact, you’d probably be better able to deal with these genuinely stressful situations if you weren’t so anxious.

Before you can begin to tackle the external source of your stress, then, you need to regain control of your body. Researchers have identified a number of techniques that work, including deep, controlled breathing.

Control Your Breath to Tamp Down Anxiety

Why does deep, controlled breathing work to tamp down the body’s stress response?

The two main regulators of the body’s physiological state are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system; the sympathetic nervous system revs things up in the face of a threat and the parasympathetic nervous system slows things back down. Normally, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in shortly after a threat has passed, releasing hormones that help your body’s systems calm down. But when your brain wrongly activates the sympathetic nervous system in response to an ongoing, non-physical threat, anxiety and its symptoms are the result.

Controlling our breath is one way we can consciously activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Researchers have long noted the connection between controlled breathing and a calmer state of mind, and in 2017, a team at the Stanford University School of Medicine identified a patch of 175 nerves that seem to be key to that effect. These nerves monitor your breathing as a clue to your physical state; they send their findings to a brain structure called the locus coeruleus that modulates the activity of the whole brain.

By taking deep, controlled breaths, you’re telling your brain, “It’s okay, we’re not in immediate danger.” This activates your parasympathetic nervous system, putting the brakes on your runaway anxiety.

Four Steps to a Calmer You

Here’s one controlled breathing technique you can try the next time you feel anxious:

  1.     Place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Close your eyes.
  2.     Count to four as you breathe in through your nose.
  3.     Count to seven as you hold your breath.
  4.     Counting to eight, blow out through your mouth.

Repeat for at least five minutes or until the anxiety passes. If you’ve been dealing with chronic anxiety for a long time, it may take as long as twenty minutes to calm down.

This trick works so well, it is regularly taught to professional athletes, performers, and emergency responders.

Of course, anxiety is a complicated phenomenon. Deep, controlled breathing techniques aren’t a one-and-done solution to chronic anxiety, which may require the help of a professional.

On the other hand, God designed our bodies with this neat feature. So the next time someone suggests taking a few deep breaths to put the brakes on your anxiety, why not try it?

For more about this topic, see the book Unworried: A Life without Anxiety, by Dr. Greg Popcak. And if you’d like to explore this topic further with a Pastoral counselor, check out our tele-counseling services at CatholicCounselors.com.