When Emotions Run High—Helpful Tips for Conquering Anxiety

Anxiety is not God’s will for us.  Before the Fall, even though Adam and Eve were completely vulnerable, they were confident in God’s care and their love for one another. Only after the Fall, when they were separated from God, each other, and themselves did they feel exposed, ashamed, and anxious. When they were confronted by the bigness of the world and their own sense of smallness and insufficiency after being separated from God, they hid, cowering behind the bushes. How often do we feel that way? There are certainly plenty of things to be concerned about, but we only become worried about those things when we allow those concerns to separate us from God’s love and our ability to use the gifts and support God has given us to make concrete plans to address those concerns gracefully.

The Theology of The Body teaches us that while worry and anxiety are common enough experiences in the modern world, the answer to our worries is to recenter ourselves in the loving arms of ABBA, daddy, the Father who loves us, cares for us, and shelters us from the storms of life–especially when we feel alone, scared, and helpless.  t’s fine to be concerned about things. That’s what enables us to identify a problem, bring it to God, gather our resources and support, and make a concrete plan to address the concern. But that’s different from anxiety, which has us focus so exclusively on the problem that it makes us incapable of identifying the actual problem, bringing it to God, gathering our resources, and making a plan. We just allow ourselves to spin out. That’s why Pope JPII, was constantly reminding us “Be Not Afraid.” He wasn’t denying the myriad concerns that affect our lives. He was saying that with God’s grace, we have the power to respond to those concerns in a spirit of love and grace rather than a spirit of fear. Yes, the task before us is great, but God’s love and providence is greater.  In the face of life’s battles, let our battle cry be, “ Jesus I trust in You!”

1. Focus on the Right Target–Resist the temptation to think that your anxiety is caused by all the things going on around you or happening to you–the overwhelming amount of work that has to be done, the weight of all your responsibilities, the problems that you face.  Yes, these are real things that need to be taken seriously, but they can’t cause anxiety in and of themselves. Anxiety is created in us when we let external events distract us from the need to maintain our internal sense of wellbeing. If you are feeling anxious, it is not because you have too much to do or too many problems to face. It is because you are forgetting to take care of yourself in the face of those responsibilities and problems. Instead of focusing exclusively on all the external things that need to be addressed, ask yourself, “What do I need to do to take care of myself while I handle these situations? How will I pace myself? How can I approach these challenges in a way that will allow me to stay reasonably cheerful and connected to the people that I love? How will I face all the things I have to deal with in a way that allows me to be my best self–mentally, physically and spiritually?” Don’t brush these questions aside and say, “I can’t worry about that. I have too much to do!” It is exactly that tendency that causes anxiety. Remember, you can’t solve any problem or accomplish any task well if you are allowing yourself to get rattled, sick, hostile, and stressed.  The most important job you have to do is make sure you are keeping your head and health about you even while you handle all the things life is throwing at you.

2.  Tame the Tornado–When we’re worried and anxious, our mind spins between “I have to get control of this!” and “There’s nothing I can do!” Tame this mental tornado not by focusing on the ultimate solution, but merely the next step.What is the next tiny step you can take that nudges you toward a satisfying resolution, gathers new resources, and enlists more support? If you can refocus enough to identify the next step, then the next, and the next, God will help you tame the tornado in your mind and help you find the answers–and the peace–you seek. Don’t try to solve the whole problem at once. Focus your mind on addressing the next tiny step in front of you and then celebrating that small success. The more you concentrate on breaking big problems down into bite-sized pieces and celebrating the little successes you achieve along the way, the more your peace will increase.

3. Recall God’s Mercy–We often get anxious because we allow the stress of this moment to obliterate our memories of all the other things we’ve been through, all the other times God saved us, supported us, and carried us even though we thought we were overwhelmed, doomed, or done for. Before throwing yourself into this next pile or problems, take a moment to remind yourself of all the past times in your life when you felt overwhelmed, stressed, defeated, and not up to the task and remember how God helped you make it through all those past times, even when you weren’t sure how you were going to do it. Chances are, at least some of those situations turned out really well. At the very least, you made it through. In both cases, God was present and he provided for you. Remind yourself that this time isn’t any different. God loves you. He has demonstrated his love to you by delivering you from your troubles and overwhelming responsibilities time and time again. Bring that love with you into this latest challenges. When you start feeling anxious, take a moment to close your eyes, thank God for all the times he has carried you through your past worries and ask him for the grace to face the challenges in front you with courage and peace. The more you remember to intentionally recenter yourself in God’s mercy, providence, and grace–especially in the middle of all the craziness–the more your peace will increase.

For more support overcoming anxiety, check out the resources available at CatholicCounselors.com.


Quick links and resources:

Unworried: A Life Without Anxiety

The Life God Wants You To Have: Discovering the Divine Plan When Human Plans Fail

Prayers: St Michael Prayer (Video)

Can You Be Mindful And Still Feel Angry?


Mindfulness is a powerful technique for helping individuals develop a healthier relationship with their emotions.  Unfortunately, many individuals have fallen under the misunderstanding that practicing mindfulness means they will be completely at peace at all times. Then, when this doesn’t occur, they become more upset or believe that mindfulness doesn’t work.

To combat this, we must first understand what mindfulness really is. Mindfulness is, essentially,  the ability to experience your emotions fully without feeling controlled by those emotions. Mindfulness allows you to observe your emotions without “feeling like those emotions are so unbearable that you have to engage in dysregulated behavior (substance use, overeating, self-injury, etc) to ‘turn them off.’”

In other words, mindfulness does not cause us to “stop feeling” and always be in a state of peace. If this were the case, mindfulness would in some ways be detrimental since emotions are there to help us function. For example, “Anger helps us stand up for ourselves and motivates us to fight against injustice.” Instead, mindfulness, particularly when practice with a mental-health professional, “can help anger and other emotions feel more tolerable and easier to manage so you are less likely to feel controlled by your emotions.”

For more information on how to experience your emotions through mindfulness check out Calming The Emotional Storm 

A New Year Resolution: Stop Shaming Yourself


Four steps to graceful change in the new year.


Whether or not you’ve made any New Year’s Resolutions, this is a natural time to reflect on the changes we might like to make in our lives.

Unfortunately, a lot of efforts to change are driven by self-recrimination.  We try to shame ourselves into the changes we’d like to make.  “What’s wrong with me?”   “What can’t I just do this already?”

The Role of Guilt

Guilt can play a part in the change process but there is a difference between guilt as a loving correction of the Holy Spirit and guilt that’s a temptation from Satan to remain stuck.  Healthy guilt allows us to remain hopeful in the face of our struggles.  It challenges us to change while simultaneously allowing us to feel hopeful about the possibilities for healing and transformation.  Neurotic guilt simply causes us to ruminate about our mistakes and the hopelessness of it all.

Guilt on the Brain

Neuroscientists tell us that neurotic guilt make change more difficult. The more we beat up on ourselves, the more brain chemicals that accompany self-hatred inhibit brain cells from growing and making new connections–both of which are necessary for new behaviors to develop and new lessons to stick.

COAL: Fuel for Change.

The spiritual life is all about growth and change. In Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart (Image, 2015), I present a brain-wise approach for creating graceful change.  The four-step process employs the acronym COAL which stands for Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance, and Love. Whether you are trying to be more consistent about your prayer time, get control of your temper, lose weight, or any other concern, research shows that approaching change with these qualities in mind facilitates the brain processes that allows our efforts to take root.


Curiosity refers to a genuine desire to understand ourselves.   Curiosity allows us to ask important questions like, “What hurt am I trying to address with this behavior?”   “What is the godly motivation behind my fallen choices?”    The truth is, most of our unhealthy and even destructive behaviors represent a distorted effort to meet a legitimate need.  As GK Chesterton put it, “Every man who knocks on the door of the brothel is looking for God.”

Curiosity allows to overcome the judgmentalism that shuts down healthy self-examination. It assumes that in the face of our brokenness we have something to learn and God has something to teach us.


While curiosity allows us to ask questions about our motivations in the first place, openness allows us to receive, with an open heart, the answers that come to us.    Without openness, we may end up dismissing  or negating the insights that come forward as the result of our attempts to understand our deeper motivations.  Openness allows us to consider our insights in a spirit of prayer.  Openness does not require us to accept, as gospel,  every silly thought or excuse that pops into our head, but it requires us to admit that there might be more to our initial thoughts than meets the eye.  Our prayerful openness gives God the chance to develop the pictures that begin to emerge under the light of his grace.



            Acceptance does not mean that we rejoice in our brokenness. It simply means that we are willing to face the changes that need to occur and be patient with the process of change–even if that takes time.  Acceptance stops us from giving up in frustration just because we’ve had a bad day and fallen off the wagon–so to speak.  True acceptance facilitates the diligence and fortitude that graceful change requires. We address what we can, as conscientiously as we can, and trust God’s infinite mercy to make up the difference.



            To love is someone is to be committed to working for their good.  The same applies to loving ourselves.  Committing to loving ourselves through change means finding healthy ways to meet the positive intentions or needs that underlie our destructive or undesirable behaviors. It means refusing to give up on ourselves when we become frustrated.  It means clinging to the fact that God believes in our capacity for change even when we can’t believe in ourselves.  Finally, it means being gentle with ourselves while we continue to steadfastly pursue our goals.


Cooperating with Grace       

            The Christian life is all about transformation, conversion and healing.  By using COAL as our fuel for change, we can cooperate with God’s design of our brain to bring about greater peace in our hearts.  To learn more about how you can fulfill God’s desire to make graceful change in your life, check out Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart.

Eating Your Salvation: Are YOU Orthorexic? Take the Quiz.



In a recent interview, “Domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson takes on what she refers to as the current cultural obsession with “clean eating.”

To put it bluntly, $10 cold-pressed green juices and quinoa bowls are a lifestyle choice — it doesn’t make you virtuous. “There is a way in which food is used either to self-congratulate — you’re a better person because you’re eating like that — or to self-persecute, because you will not allow yourself to eat the foods you want,” the 55-year-old British chef and author told the audience in London this week. 

The Yahoo News article also interviews Nutritionist and National Eating Disorder Association spokeswoman Sondra Kronberg who say that she has noticed that eating disorders nowadays are about purity and morality. “Instead of going to church or synagogue, people are saying, ‘Treat your body like a temple,’” she explains. “Eating ‘purely’ has taken the place of spirituality.”

Eating disorder specialists refer to this trend as “orthorexia” –the disordered obsession with “eating right.”

I address orthorexia in my book Broken Gods: Hope, Healing and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart. Aquinas considered what we call “orthorexia” a form of gluttony he called, “studiose” or, basically, a preciousness about food. In Broken Gods, I argue that all forms of gluttony (both mindless overeating and orthorexia) are distortions of the Divine Longing for Well-Being. Well-being requires us to develop temperance and seek authentic balance in our lives between our physical, emotional, relational and spiritual selves, but all forms of gluttony toss this aside, and instead, tell us that we can achieve salvation/well-being/deliverance from all of our problems through eating (either by overindulging or by being precious about what we eat).

As with the other deadly sins and the divine longings they mask, we can only achieve healing by recognizing the godly intention behind the desire and finding grace-filled ways to meet the need that is driving it. Change is always challenging, but this approach is the more loving alternative the self-shaming and merciless recriminations we usually put ourselves through. 

Dr. Stephen Bratman developed a 10-item questionnaire to help people determine whether they are falling into orthorexia.  The following are his questions along with his explanation for why these issues point to a possible unhealthy relationship with “eating right.”   A scores of  4+ points indicates the need to seek an evaluation for possible orthorexia.

1) Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about food? (For four hours give yourself two points.)

The time measurement includes cooking, shopping, reading about your diet, discussing (or evangelizing) it with friends, and joining Internet chat groups on the subject. Three hours a day is too much time to think about healthy food. Life is meant for love, joy, passion, and accomplishment. Absorption with righteous food seldom produces any of these things.

2) Do you plan tomorrow’s food today?

Orthorexics tend to dwell on upcoming menus. “Today I will eat steamed broccoli, while tomorrow I will boil Swiss chard. The day after that I think I’ll make brown rice with adzuki beans.” If you get a thrill of pleasure from contemplating a healthy menu the day after tomorrow, something is wrong with your focus.

3) Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?

It’s one thing to love to eat, but for an orthrexic it isn’t the food itself; it’s the idea of the food. You can pump yourself up so giddily with pride that you don’t even taste it going down.

4) Have you found that as the quality of your diet has increased, the quality of your life has correspondingly diminished?

The problem with orthorexia is that healthy food doesn’t feed your soul. If you spend too much energy on what you put into your mouth, pretty soon the meaning will drain out of the rest of your life.

5) Do you keep getting stricter with yourself?

Like other addictions, orthorexia tends to escalate, demanding increasing vigilance as time passes. The diet of yesterday isn’t pure enough for tomorrow. Over time the rules governing healthy eating get more rigid. And if you are an orthrexic, you get a grim pleasure from this.

6) Do you sacrifice experiences you once enjoyed to eat the food you believe is right?

Because of it’s confused scale of values, orthorexia leads to a crazy allocation of interest. Have you fallen into this trap? Will you turn down an invitation to eat at a friend’s house because the food there isn’t healthy enough for you? Do you find that obsessive thoughts of healthy food occupy your mind while you watch your child perform in a play at school?

7) Do you feel an increased sense of self-esteem when you are eating healthy food? Do you look down on others who don’t?

One of the seductive aspects of orthorexia is that it allows one to feel superior to other people. After all, healthy eating is everywhere extolled. Orthorexia seems to be right up there with good work habits and a clean life. In this, orthorexia has an aspect that can make it harder to shake than other eating disorders: While anorexics and bulimics feel ashamed of their habits, orthorexics strut with pride. “Look at those degenerates,” the mind says of everyone else, “hopelessly addicted to junk.”

8) Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?

If you are an orthorexic, you feel guilt and shame when you eat foods that don’t fit the anointed diet. Your sense of self-esteem is so linked to what you eat that tasting a morsel of forbidden food feels like a sin. The only way to regain self-respect is to recommit yourself to ever-stricter eating, to despise yourself when you stray from the path of food righteousness.

There are times in life when it’s worthwhile being ashamed. When I’ve lost my temper at a child, betrayed a secret, insulted a friend behind his back, I’ve committed an actual error worthy of actual guilt. But eating pizza is fairly low on the scale of moral lapses. No one on her deathbed looks back and says, “I’m filled with regret that I ate too much ice cream and not enough kale.”

9) Does your diet socially isolate you?

Once you’ve reached a certain point, the rigidity demanded by orthorexia makes it truly difficult for you to eat anywhere but home. Most restaurants don’t serve the right foods, and even when they do, you won’t trust that it’s been prepared correctly. Even your friends inexplicably fail to cater to your personal preferences.

A common strategy is to bring your own food in separate containers and chew it slowly, looking virtuous and soulful while everyone else gulps down garbage. Or, like a solitary alcoholic, you can decline the invitation and dine in the loneliness and comfort of your own home.

10) When eating the way you are supposed to, do you feel a peaceful sense of total control?

Life is complicated, unpredictable, and often scary. It is not always possible to control your life, but you can control what you eat. A heavy-handed domination over what goes onto your fork or spoon can create the comfortable illusion that your life is no longer in danger of veering from the plan.

How’d you do?  Remember a score of 4+ means that you may have an unhealthy relationship with “eating right.”    To learn more about how to overcome our tendency to achieve salvation through food (either by mindlessly overeating or being overly correct about what and how we eat) check out Broken Gods:  Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn more about how you can work with a professional, Catholic counselor by telephone to achieve authentic balance in your life.

The Mindless Catholic: Does “Mindfulness” Have a Place In Catholic Spirituality and Practice?

Image Shutterstock.

Image Shutterstock.

My fellow Patheosi, Will Duquette, at Cry Woof was wondering about the psychological technique of mindfulness and how it fits into Catholic spirituality.  He writes…

From what I’ve gathered, mindfulness involves quieting your thoughts and being aware and alert to your body and your environment.  As such, it’s a way of being present, of living in the moment; and apparently the goal is to start small and increase this mindfulness in all parts of life.  A caveat: I gather that mindfulness is a part of Eastern spirituality, and I’m sure that there’s more to it in that context than I’ve given above.   

Because he has some concerns that mindfulness may not be completely consistent with Catholic spirituality he concludes, mindfulness seems like a nice place to visit on my way from being scattered to being collected, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

Should Catholicism Be Mind-less?

I thought I’d throw in my .02 because Catholic spirituality does, in fact, encourage us to not just visit, but live in a mindful state of being as much as humanly possible.  Why?  Because it is in this mindful state–as opposed to a superficial, busy, mindless state– where we will most likely be able to encounter God and God’s grace from moment to moment in our lives.  Will is correct that, in most popular uses, mindfulness is often associated with Buddhism, but that’s only because–as a spiritual system that is not necessarily theistic, secular therapists are more comfortable working within a Buddhist framework than a more overtly theistic spirituality like Christianity.  That said, mindfulness, as spiritual discipline, is actually an integral part of any spiritual system that values contemplative prayer–especially Catholicism.  I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first let’s take a little closer look at what mindfulness is.

Mindfulness Defined

“Mindfulness” is a quality psychologists define as the ability to be (1) present in the moment and (2) consciously able to choose the best response out of a number of emotional possibilities.  Mindfulness is the opposite of being reactive.  For instance, if my kid was getting on my nerves and I was being reactive, I would feel angry and yell at him  But if my kid was getting on my nerves and I was being mindful, I would feel angry, be aware of that anger, and be able to decide whether this was a time that was better served by yelling (there are times…) or by doing something else (e.g., redirecting, gently correcting, etc.)  Where reactivity is emotion that is automatically and thoughtlessly translated into action, mindfulness is the active observation of my emotions that leads to a greater awareness of possible, conscious responses I can make to my emotions.

The opposite of mindfulness is a sort of superficial, reactive, busy approach to life that doesn’t consider the deeper, spiritual significance of this moment.

Mindfulness has been associated with better emotional, relational, and spiritual health and an important source of a healthy self-image (because it facilitates self-control and peacefulness).

But is it Kosher? I Mean, um,…Catholic?

As I note above, some Catholics who are aware of mindfulness as a psychological technique have concerns about it because most psychological writing on mindfulness draws from a more Buddhist tradition. This, however, is more by accident than by necessity.  Buddhism is attractive to secular psychologists because it is an a-theistic religion; that is to say, the belief in God is optional for Buddhists, who are chiefly concerned with personal enlightenment.  Be that as it may, while Christians are right to be cautious about any approaches drawn exclusively from Eastern mystical traditions,  Catholics have been practicing our own form of mindfulness for 2000 years, only we call it, “active contemplation.”

Mindfulness = Active Contemplation

In general “contemplation” is a kind of Christian prayer that helps us achieve greater intimacy with God, greater awareness of what God is saying to us, and greater clarity of how God wants us to respond.   More specifically, “active contemplation” is the ability to use the mundane tasks of everyday life to this end. To be actively contemplative allows me to see the guy cutting me off in traffic as a metaphor for God’s patience with me when I cross him and a call to greater develop greater patience with others in return.  To be actively contemplative allows me to hear God giving me advice about a situation I’ve been praying about–through the mouth of my 7 year old who is talking about some completely unrelated thing.  to be actively contemplative means having the self-possession to feel one way, but be able to choose the better way despite those feelings.  To be actively contemplative means to be able to feel depressed, or anxious, or angry and see that acting on those feelings is not in my best interest and be able to choose to do something else.  Or, to use Will’s example of mindfulness as it relates to weight loss, it means being able to objectively observe my hunger and see that it is not necessarily food I am hungry for in this moment, but greater balance in my life, healthier engagement with the people around me, or a deeper connection with God.

Cultivating mindfulness is, for the Catholic, an important skill for spiritual, emotional, and relational well-being.  To learn more about how healthy Christian approaches to mindfulness/active contemplation can help you create change in your life, check out my latest book, Broken Gods:  Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart.

This is Your Brain on Religion

Researchers from the National Institute on Aging and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, analyzed data collected from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies to evaluate the flow of brain activity when religious and non-religious individuals discussed their religious beliefs.

Dimitrios Kapogiannis, M.D., and colleagues determined causal pathways link brain networks related to “supernatural agents,” fear regulation, imagery and affect, all of which may be involved in cognitive processing of religious beliefs.

“When the brain contemplates a religious belief,” said Kapogiannis, “it is activating three distinct networks that are trying to answer three distinct questions:

1) is there a supernatural agent involved (such as God) and, if so, what are his or her intentions; 2) is the supernatural agent to be feared; and 3) how does this belief relate to prior life experiences and to doctrines?”

“Are there brain networks uniquely devoted to religious belief? Prior research has indicated the answer is a resolute no,” said study co-author Jordan Grafman, Ph.D.

“But this study demonstrates that important brain networks devoted to various kinds of reasoning about others, emotional processing, knowledge representation, and memory are called into action when thinking about religious beliefs.

The use of these basic networks for religious practice indicates how basic networks evolved to mediate much more complex beliefs like those contained in religious practice.”

For those of you interested in learning more about religion and the brain, check out this interesting post on the field of neurotheology.

Do We Have Free Will?

There is, currently, a Patheos-wide discussion regarding people’s beliefs about free will.  Many brain scientists deny the existence of such a thing as free will.  They correctly observe that the impulse to act emerges from the lower brain between  .3 – 1.5 seconds before we even become aware of the impulse.  The implication is that most of our actions are guided by impulses that we are barely aware of before we act upon them.  There is something to this.  Many, even most of our actions are unconsciously driven.  The majority of our actions are the result of repetitive programming (environment, training, experiences) that we don’t even stop to consciously consider.   God made us that way so that we could function.  We wouldn’t be able to walk across a room much less make complicated decisions if we had to consciously analyze every variable before taking the next step.  Maintaining this level of free will would be practically impossible.  Having to process that level of information on an ongoing basis would cause us to experience even more choice paralysis than we currently do!

But none of this means that free will doesn’t exist.  Brain scientists who believe in free will tend to speak more in terms of “free won’t.”  In other words, although it is true that the impulse to commit an action occurs before we are aware of the impulse, there are other regions of the brain that give us veto power over those impulses and, in fact, allow us to then redirect that energy into other actions.  This is the process psychologists refer to as “response flexibility.”  That is, the ability to pause before acting and redirect oneself to other, alternative, responses.

For instance, if something makes you angry and you want to punch someone in the face, the impulse to deliver that punch has been building for a good amount of time (neurologically speaking) before you even become aware of your fist beginning to clench.  But having become aware of this impulse, your higher brain kicks into gear and offers a few other choices. You could express your anger in words.  You could shut down entirely.  You could excuse yourself to go exercise. You could take a break to figure out how best to proceed.  Or, you could punch the person.  You have a choice to make.  Do you go with the impulse, or do you veto the impulse and redirect (i.e., sublimate) that energy into another direction?  This is “free won’t”

It appears that mindfulness-based practices such as some forms of active reflection can increase a person’s capacity for response flexibility.  Mindfulness is the ability to stand apart from one’s feelings, impulses, and environment and non-judgmentally take in all the available information so that one can make the best choice rooted in the best information. From the point of view of mindfulness-based practices, the original impulse to act is just one additional source of information that a person has to reflect upon and choose from.

While brain scientists argue among themselves, it would appear that simple observation of the process of change proves that impulses are not destiny.  If they were, it would be impossible to alter behaviors.  While it is, admittedly, difficult to make changes in behavior, emotion, or personality, there is no question it is possible.  The more self-possessed, self-aware, mindful a person is, the more behavioral choices they have available to them and the greater impulse control they have.  The mechanisms guiding these processes are just beginning to be studied much less understood, but as we come to understand the intricate interactions between the brain, mind, and relationship, we see that not only is free will (or, if you prefer free won’t) a reality, but that we have more choices available to us than we ever thought possible.

Emotional Security: Do You Know What YOUR Emotions Are Trying to Tell You?

Most Christians have a pretty ambivalent relationship with our emotions.  We just don’t know what to feel about our feelings.  Sometimes, emotions can be the source of a great deal of joy, satisfaction, and well-being.  Other times they can wreck us with anxiety, despair, anger, and angst.   Of course,  there are still other times when we get upset with ourselves for being upset, angry at ourselves for being angry, or depressed about how sad we feel.

Emotions are a part of our body, of course, and, as such, the Theology of the Body tells us that–just like the rest of our body–emotions are intended by God to work for our good and the good of others.  But what about the times they don’t?  What is the best way to think about our emotions and how can we do a better job managing them?

Emotion:  What is it…Really?

It is surprisingly difficult to get consensus on what an emotion actually is.  Biologists will tell you that emotions are just neurochemistry.  Psychologists will tell you that emotions are the results of the thoughts that run through your head.  Anthropologists will say that emotions are the way individuals know they are connected to some groups and disconnected from others.  All of these theories get at some aspect of emotions and some of these theories describe what emotions do, but none of those descriptions really do anything to tell us what emotions are.

The new science of interpersonal neurobiology (the study of how relationships affect the mind and brain) has proposed an interesting answer to the question, “What is an emotion” that cuts across all the different professional distinctions and gives the average person a simple but useful way of thinking about emotions so that they can get better control of them.

What is an emotion?

Emotions represent shifts in the degree of integration between or within the body, mind, and relationships.

Let me explain.

Warning…Warning…Disturbance on Level Three!

Think of your emotions as the security office in one of those caper movies, you know, like, say, Oceans 11.   In a sense, your emotions are like that room filled with cameras, indicator lights and buzzers that let you see how well (or not) everything is working–and working together (or not)–from moment to moment.   Only, instead of a bank vault, elevator shaft, and the boss’ office,  the security system represented by your emotions is the system that monitors how well your body, mind and relationships are working both on their own and with each other.   In other words, they “represent shifts in the degree of integration between or within the body, mind, and relationship.   Let me give a few examples…

Let’s say you feel “emotionally close” to someone.  What does that mean?   It means their thoughts and feelings are meshing well with your thoughts and feelings.  In other words, you are experiencing a high degree of integration between you and the other person and, as a result, you experience emotions that correspond with that integration, like happiness, affection, even love.

On the other hand, if you have a serious disagreement with that other person about something, your thoughts and feelings aren’t meshing well.   As a result of this lesser degree of integration between you, you might experience anger that they don’t see things the way you do or you might fear that the relationship is in jeopardy.

In both of the above instances,  your emotions are monitoring the degree of integration or disintegration you are feeling in your relationship with someone from moment to moment.

Let’s take another example.   What does it mean to be “emotionally healthy?”  Your degree of emotional health has to do with the degree of integration you experience between (and within) your body, mind and relationships.   It represents how much your mind consistently desires and motivates you to do things that are good for your body and your relationships.

For instance, if your mind produces strong urges to do things that would endanger your sense of bodily integrity (for example; drink too much or take drugs that impair your functioning or risks that endanger your well-being) you have poor integration between your mind and body.  As a result, the “security officer” played by your emotions may send out a warning sign in the form of sadness, desperation, or emptiness.

Similarly, if your mind produces a strong urge to lash out at others, there may be a poor degree of integration between what your mind wants and what your relationships need in order to function well.  As a result, your emotional security officer will send out warning sign in the form of feelings of estrangement, loneliness, or isolation.

As you can see, “emotional health” or “emotional illness” reflects the degree  of integration or disintegration, respectively,  that you are feeling between your mind, body, and relationships, from moment to moment.

The above represent examples of disintegration between your mind, body, and relationships.  But the Emotional Security Office also monitors how each of these systems are working on their own.

For instance, if you are rested, your body, itself, is more likely to feel a greater degree of integration than if you slept poorly.  Your emotions will probably reflect that degree of integration by making you feel content and peaceful.  But if you slept poorly, your emotions reflect that poor degree of bodily integration by making you grumpy and irritable.  In this case your emotions represent the degree of integration you are experiencing within your body from moment to moment.

In short, emotions are the vast monitoring network God gave you enabling you to oversee, at a glance, how much unity (integration) and well-being you are encountering between and within your mind, body and relationships from moment to moment.

So What?

Too often, especially when we feel negative emotions,  we think of the feeling as the problem.  “I wish I could just stop feeling so anxious/depressed/overwhelmed.    The feeling isn’t the problem.  The feeling is the warning light telling you to look for the problem–i.e., the disintegration that is causing the emotional alarm bells to ring.  Imagine if the Head of Security in our caper movie heard all the lights and buzzers going off that indicated a robbery in progress and instead of dispatching guards to the scene just said, “Ugh!   I’m so sick of listening to all these buzzers and seeing these flashing red lights!   Shut it all down!  I just need a nap!”  Or, alternatively, what if the same Head of Security said, “These lights and buzzers are freaking me out!  Let’s just torch the whole room.  You heard me!  Burn the place down!”

Obviously, those would be foolish choices.  But we try to do the same things with our emotions!  Because we tend to think of our feelings as the problems themselves, we try to ignore them or shut them down with rash decisions intended to make all the buzzing stop.  We often forget to listen to our emotions and, metaphorically speaking, send a guard to check out what’s going on at the vault, or on level four, or to the elevator (our mind, brain, or relationships) so that we can correct the problem.  We forget that the buzzing will stop when the problem is solved.

Just like the warning indicator doesn’t stop buzzing until the problem is resolved, your feelings won’t change until the disintegration they are pointing to is adequately addressed.


Emotions and the Quest for Original Unity

The Theology of the Body tells us that, before the Fall, man, woman, and God existed in a state of  Original Unity.  Presumably this unity didn’t just exist between them, but within them as well.  After all, you can’t be at peace with others if you are at war with yourself.  Before the Fall,   man and woman felt right (i.e., experienced a high degree of integration) within themselves, as well as between each other and God.  That “Original Unity” is what our emotions are pointing to; what they want us to get back to.  The thief has entered the building, and the alarms will not cease until we have expelled him from the premises (Matt 24:43).

Our emotions remind us of the need to strive for the Original Unity in which we were created to live.  Emotions are not the enemy.  In fact, they can serve us well as long as we don’t try to shut them down by rashly cutting people out of our lives, or by drinking, drugging, indulging our passions, or taking foolish risks in a desperate, reactionary attempt to plug our ears to the warning bells and blindfold ourselves so we can’t see the flashing red lights.

What Can I DO?

So the next time your emotions get the better of you, don’t beat yourself up for being weak.  Thank God that your emotions are doing exactly what he created them to do.  And instead of asking, “Why do I feel this way?”    Ask, “Where is the most acute imbalance in or between my body, mind or relationships right now and what can I do to begin addressing it?”

Correct the disintegration in or between your body, mind, and relationships and your feelings will follow suit.

If you would like additional help in achieving emotional health, contact me, Dr. Greg Popcak,  to learn more about the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Catholic Tele-Counseling Services.  You can visit us online or call 740-266-6461 to make an appointment today.


COMING TUES on MORE2LIFE RADIO: Get A Hold of Yourself!

Coming Tues on More2Life:  Get A Hold of Yourself!  We all have times when we react rather than responding to emotionally-charged situations.  We’ll look at what it takes to tame the reactions that tend to run away with you and how to cultivate greater peace and creativity.

PLUS, SharingCatholicFaith.com Family Psychologist and Master Catechist, Dr. Joseph White joins us to talk about:  Teaching Teens to Make Good Choices

Call in at 877-573-7825 from Noon-1 Eastern (11-Noon Central) with your questions about responding rather than reacting when emotions run hot.


Q of the D:  (Two-fer.  Answer one or both to win!) 

1.  Give an example of a situation that tends to provoke you to react rather than respond?

2.  People have different reactions.  Some get angry, some quiet and withdrawn, some filled with nervous energy.  When you get upset, how do you react?

*Win a free book!  Every day you respond to the question of the day your name will be entered in a radio drawing to win a free book from the Popcak Catholic Living Library (over 10 titles in all)!  Again, each day that you respond you will get another chance at winning a free book in the drawing held every Friday on More2Life Radio.


This week’s featured title is:  God Help Me, This Stress is Driving Me Crazy!  Finding Balance through God’s Grace –explores how to regain the emotional balance that stress, worry, and anxiety try to steal from you.  You’ll discover strategies for getting your life in order, putting first things first,  and mastering the emotions that threaten your inner-peace.

Winners will be announced on air and contacted by FB message following the drawing this Friday, 6/28.

Can’t get M2L on a Catholic radio station near you? YOU CAN STILL HEAR US!
~ Listen via our FREE AveMariaRadio IPhone or Android App (Check your app store!),
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“That they all may be one.” In which Calvin & Hobbes, Jung, and Pope JPII Help Us Experience the Connection We Crave with Others.

Everyone longs for connection.  We all crave closeness but it can seem so elusive at times.  In the face of the struggle to fulfill that desire to be in synch with others, we can often despair that it was ever meant to be.

We shouldn’t.   The Theology of the Body reminds us that we were created to live in unity with God and others.   And, of course, this idea is deeply rooted in scripture.  Genesis (2:18) asserts that it was God’s intention from the very beginning that would live in intimate communion with others.  Jesus, himself, prayed for unity we all crave in John 17:20-23 where he said,  “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that you have sent me. And the glory which you gave me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one.”   The desire for unity that is written on the human heart points to this call to ultimate unity between God, us, and all of humankind.

A Taste of Heaven

All of us have experienced at least flashes of this unity in our lives.  Every once in a while, God gives us a taste of that connection for which we were created and to which we are destined.  Even if it is rare, most of us  have had that experience of being in the presence of someone who, for some reason, in that moment, makes everything seem peaceful, makes connection seem easy and helps it all  just “makes sense.”  Jung called this experience “synchronicity”  other psychologists like, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, call it “flow.”  But whatever you call it, it is a universal longing of the human heart and our happiness depends on our ability to fulfill that longing.

Unity and Holiness

What does it take to cultivate this sense of unity with others?  Most people would say, “time” or “quietness” and to some degree they’re right.  A person needs both of these things to cultivate the qualities that contribute to their ability to be in synch with others.  That said, it’s possible to have this sense with someone even when you don’t have a lot of time and are in a noisy crowd of thousands.  For instance, people who experienced Pope John Paul II, or Mother Theresa, or even now, Pope Francis, will tell you that even if they only got a few seconds with one of these holy people, they were made to feel like they were the only ones who mattered in that moment.  There was a transcendent connection–in the middle of the chaos of the crowd–where one felt “in synch” (in synchronicity) with the other.

Christian mystical theologians tell us that this ability to experience and create moments of unity is a sign of holiness.  Since God is one, and gathers all things into himself so that all may be one, the closer we draw to God, the more we are able to experience unity and share that experience of oneness with another.

Cultivating Connection:  Four Qualities

So we see that the ability to be in synch with others isn’t so much a product of our environment as much as it is a state of being, a mindspace if you will, in which it becomes possible to take down the barriers that separate us from each other and, in turn, create intimate connection.  Psychologists who study these states of being as they naturally occur have identified 4 qualities that enable a person to cultivate that sense of connection with another.  We all have the potential to exhibit these qualities and chances are we already exhibit them to some degree or another.  The trick is to develop them to the degree that we can experience them consistently and simultaneously.  The four qualities that lead to this sort of soulful connection between people are known  by the acronym COAL; Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance, and Love.  Let’s look at each of these qualities.

COAL Fuels Connection

Curiosity is defined, in this context, as the genuine and honest desire to know another person; their story, thoughts, feelings, and heart.  This type of curiosity is driven by a sincere desire to understand the other person and appreciate the world through their eyes.

Openness is the  willingness to leave my comfort zone for sake of connection with the other.  We often resist opportunities to see the world through others because it can be disturbing to our own sense of reality (as Calvin, below, kindly illustrates).  A healthy sense of openness allows us to leave our own worldview intact while we try on the worldview of another.  The goal of openness is not so much agreement with the other as it is understanding of the other.

Acceptance is the willingness to hear the other person’s thoughts, feelings, ideas and life story without judgment.  This is especially tricky for Christians because we believe, rightly, in absolute truth.  It can be hard to feel that I can be accepting of another’s experience and still be committed to the proposition that there is a right way to live and a right path to walk.   Often, curiosity and openness will lead me to encounter people who are very different from me and who’s own worldview clashes significantly, even violently, with mine.  Acceptance of the other’s worldview does not necessarily mean agreement.  It means that I am willing to understand that the other persons views represent a sincere and honest attempt on their part to meet their needs or fulfill their good intentions.  The means by which they attempt to meet those needs or intentions may be deeply flawed, and I might think that it would be better if they changed, but in accepting them, I respect how they came to have the views they do and I respect the needs and intentions that drive those views.  For Christians, this concept might be best expressed as the spiritual practice of charitable interpretation.

Loving represents a  genuine commitment to working for the good of other.  No matter how much I may disagree with someone or how different they may be from me, I actively demonstrate my commitment to doing what I can to making their life easier, more pleasant, more edifying, and healthier in whatever way I can.

The more we intentionally cultivate these four virtues in our life and relationships the more likely it is that we will have those flashes of connection, those moments of synchronicity and unity that satisfy the ache in our hearts for intimacy.   The closer we come to fulfilling Jesus’ prayer that all might be one in Him.