How To Raise The Dead

Guest post by Jacob Francisco M.A., LMHC, Pastoral Counselor at CatholicCounselors.com


There is an emotion that can kill, and that emotion is called shame. Shame is the sense that deep down inside, at the very core of who we are, we are unlovable, unworthy, broken beyond repair, or otherwise
bad. This feeling is something we are all familiar with going all the way back to the garden of Eden. For some of us, this shame seems to kill a part of us. We may describe ourselves as feeling “dead inside” or talk about the skeletons in our closet. Another common description is feeling numb all the time. 

Shame feels repulsive or ugly, like something dead, and we do not want to think about it or anyone else to know about it. It’s a natural impulse to bury something that is dead. We do this in the physical world and we do this emotionally. So we toss it in a hole and throw heavy stones on top to keep it buried. We medicate our self-loathing or despair with things that make us feel better in the moment; food, TV, social media, substances, pornography or other sexual behaviors, oversleeping, overworking. The list is endless. Sometimes the thing we use to bury the shame is even more of what we are ashamed of, and so the cycle continues around and around. Oftentimes we are able to numb out the shame to the point that we rarely consider it consciously anymore. We may deny that we have any shame at all. This dead part of us that we have now buried is a festering, rotting, thing that poisons the other parts of us. It spreads like a plague into many areas of our life, warping our thoughts and emotions into twisted half-truths that trap us in despair or suffering. 

Christ came to raise the dead in all senses of that phrase. He came that you may have life, and have it to the full. When Lazarus had died and Jesus went to Bethany, Martha and Mary asked Jesus for a miracle. In response to this request He says, “Take away the stone.” In other words, Jesus requires an act of faith. He requires that they work for what they pray for. Jesus is the only one who can do this and He requires that we clear the way.

 Here are a few steps to do just that:

  1. Identify the stone. What are the stones I have piled up over my shame? What sinful or unhealthy behaviors do I feel stuck in or powerless to change?
  2. Work for the miracle. I must do what is in my power to grow and become more healthy. I must act before I feel better. I need to cut away sinful behavior from my life. I must act contrary to my unhealthy urges and desires.
  3. Seek help. Big stones rolled in front of tombs are heavy! You will need help from someone trustworthy, mature, and/or professional. Start asking the Lord for the faith you need to believe He can raise the dead.
  4. Tell your story. Shame is like mold. It grows where it is dark and cool and hidden. Share your story with a trusted person. Let the light and the heat into that tomb. 
  5. Have faith and courage. Do what is within your power, and God will do what is within His. Your faith can raise the dead.

If you would like more resources or support to work through shame or other difficult emotions, reach out to a Pastoral Counselor at CatholicCounselors.com.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Recognizing Emotional Paralysis

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

Emotional paralysis shows up in relationships, too.

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

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

 

God Gave Us the Tools We Need to Move Forward

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

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

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

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

 

3 Steps for Breaking Free and Taking Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Spiritual Practice to Boost Your Well-Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Walk On Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Apocalypse Always: How to Stop Catastrophizing

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

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

Some other examples of catastrophizing:

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

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

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

 

Dealing with Catastrophic Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling Overwhelmed? Try This 3-Part Journaling Exercise

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

 

Start by Identifying Old, Unhelpful Scripts

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

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

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

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

 

A Journaling Exercise for Rewriting Old Scripts

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

 

1. Vent about the stressful situation 

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

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

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

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

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

 

2. Identify the distortions

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

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

 

3. Write yourself a helpful letter

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

Dear friend,

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

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

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

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

10 Ways of Thinking That Sabotage Your Life

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Top Ten Types of Unhelpful “Self-Talk”

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

 1. Mind Reading

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

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

2. Filtering

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

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

3. Magnification

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

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

4. Catastrophizing

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

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

5. Emotional Reasoning

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

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

6. Polarized Thinking

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

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

8. Fallacy of Internal Control

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

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

8. Personalizing

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

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

9. The ‘Shoulds’

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

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

10. The Fallacy of Change

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

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

 

Changing Unhelpful Self-Talk

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

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

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

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.

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.

Carrying Your Cross—Concrete Steps to Overcoming Difficulties

 

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

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

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

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

Here are three practical steps to accomplish the above points:

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

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

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

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

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God Help Me! This Stress is Driving Me Crazy!

God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts!

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