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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

 

Jesus Wasn’t Always ‘Nice’

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

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

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

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

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

 

Real Love Works for the Good of the Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Love of the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Ways of Thinking That Sabotage Your Life

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Top Ten Types of Unhelpful “Self-Talk”

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

 1. Mind Reading

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

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

2. Filtering

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

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

3. Magnification

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

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

4. Catastrophizing

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

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

5. Emotional Reasoning

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

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

6. Polarized Thinking

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

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

8. Fallacy of Internal Control

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

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

8. Personalizing

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

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

9. The ‘Shoulds’

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

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

10. The Fallacy of Change

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

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

 

Changing Unhelpful Self-Talk

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

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

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

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.

Fasting From Falsehood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is True Christian Optimism? Finding Hope During Challenging Times

When life gets challenging—and let’s be honest, it often can—it is difficult to not be overwhelmed by desolation and a loss of hope.

The Theology of The Body, however, reminds us that God created a world of order, peace, joy, and abundance. Although that was all taken from us by the Fall, God is constantly working to make the world orderly, peaceful, joyful, and abundant again. That is his plan. That is our destiny. In spite of the problems we face, no matter how frustrating or difficult, our job as Christians is to do four things.  First, we need to remind ourselves that this is the plan. We need to come against our doubts and hold on to this plan with all our might.  Second, we need to pray constantly, always asking God how we can cooperate with his plan to do whatever we can to make the situation in front of us at least a little bit better. Third, we need to get to work, doing what we can to actually try to improve the situation. Finally, we need to repeat these four steps over and over, in all circumstances.

For the Christian “optimism” doesn’t mean saying “everything’s going to be ok.”  The truth is, sometimes it’s not ok. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we thought they would or wanted them to. Rather, for the Christian, true optimism, or rather hope, means saying, “Through God’s grace, I have the power to do something to make whatever this is…better. I trust in the Lord who knows the plan and wants to teach me how to cooperate with that plan.  Hope is not a process of passively standing by and telling myself that it’s all going to work out somehow.  It is the process of 1) acknowledging that in the face of any challenge I encounter, God has a plan for making it better, 2) asking God to teach me how to cooperate with that plan in light of my present circumstances, 3) rolling up my sleeves and doing the thing and 4) building every moment of my life around this process.

Here are a few steps for cultivating true optimism and finding hope today:

1.  Feelings are a Choice–We often feel as if feelings are something that happen to us. And they are, but we don’t have to stay stuck in the emotions that overtake us. We can chose to take actions that will help us feel better, stronger, calmer, and more hopeful. No, your emotions can’t turn on a dime. You can’t make yourself super-happy if you’re feeling sad, or perfectly peaceful if you’re feeling anxious. But by challenging the false messages that run through our minds, we can turn sadness into hope, anxiety into resolve, and powerlessness into purposefulness. Instead of giving into the thought that, “there is nothing I can do,” we can remind ourselves that, “Even a small change can make a big difference.” Instead of saying, “No one cares about me,” we can remind ourselves to reach out to the people in our lives honestly and give them a chance to be there for us. Instead of saying, “This situation is hopeless,” we can remind ourselves that with God, all things are possible, and begin to ask him what changes we can make that will give him glory. The psychologist, Viktor Frankl, lived in the Concentration Camps during WWII. He fought against hopelessness himself and also studies those fellow inmates who persevered despite their circumstances. Here is what he had to say, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  No matter how powerless you feel, don’t give up your freedom to choose to respond to your circumstances in a meaningful, intimate, and virtuous manner that leads to strength, power, grace and freedom.

2.  Reach Out–When you are feeling sad, powerless, or hopeless, that can be a sign that you are trying to handle too much on your own. Challenge yourself to reach out to God and the other people in your life–especially if you feel that they won’t understand. Make it your job to make them understand or find other people who will. Remember God’s words in Genesis, “It is not good for man to be alone.” We were created for community. If you’re feeling low–even if you don’t want to be around others–do everything you can to make yourself connect with the people in your life and leave yourself open to other’s efforts to connect with you. Our minds are literally wired to feel better and more positive when we feel connected. Making the effort to reach out to others for help, for support, or even just a distraction, will trigger your social brain to start producing feel-good chemicals that will help boost your mood overall. Work with the design of your body to increase your sense of hope, strength and confidence. Reach out to God and others and let the love that is there for you fill all those dark corners of your heart.

3.  Get Tools–If you are feeling consistently stuck, burned out, hopeless, helpless, or powerless, if you are struggling at all to enjoy your life and relationships, it is time to get professional help.  It doesn’t matter if you are “really depressed” or not.  God wants you to experience the life he is giving you as a gift. If you are having a hard time feeling like your life is a gift, that is enough of a reason to get the new tools, graceful insights, and powerful support that a faithful, pastoral counselor can offer you. Don’t struggle for years on your own. Seek the help today that can help you live a more graceful, peaceful, joyful life.  With proper treatment, most people with even serious depression can begin experiencing a lightening of their symptoms in a matter of weeks. And even if you’re not “really” depressed, you can benefit from new tools that can help you think and act in healthier ways and lead a more fulfilling, graceful life.

If you would like support or want to explore more resources, visit us at CatholicCounselors.com

 

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The Life God Wants You To Have–Navigating Change and Achieving Your Goals

Setting new goals or navigating change can feel overwhelming. Sometimes we can even feel as though we’ve failed before we’ve even started. But it doesn’t have to be this way! 

The Theology of The Body reminds us that, when we look at our life, what we see isn’t what we get. In the beginning, we were created for a more abundant, intimate, joyful, and holy life. More importantly, through God’s grace, we are destined to live a more abundant, intimate, joyful, and holy life again. Of course, that doesn’t happen on its own. First, we need to be in constant prayer, asking God to teach us how He wants us to respond to every moment of the day. We have to cultivate the mindset that we don’t know anything–especially when we think we do. We need to ask God to teach us how to live each moment of every day as if it’s the first time we are experiencing it. That is the “poverty of spirit” that allows God to lead us to the changes he wants to make in our lives.

Second, we need to get to work. As we continue to pray as if we need to be taught–from the ground up–how to respond to each moment in the day, we need to constantly ask ourselves, how could I glorify God in this moment? How could work for the ultimate good of the person in front of me? What would it mean for me to be my best self in this moment–especially when my plans are being frustrated? Like a toddler learning to walk, when we adopt this approach, we become God’s little children, reaching out for his hand, asking him to teach us how to live the whole, healed, godly, grace-filled lives we were created for.

Here are three simple steps for navigating change and achieving your goals:

1.Set Positive Goals–New research by Florida State University shows that one of the most important factors in making successful change is how positively we frame our goal. For instance, the implied criticism behind the negative goal,  “I want to lose weight” causes us to feel undermined right from the start. A better goal would be something like, “I feel good when I exercise and eat a little lighter. I want to do that more often.” Another example? “I feel good–and my kids behave better–when I correct them in more loving and gentle ways. I am going to do more of that.”  Setting a positive goal reminds you of the good feelings that accompany sticking to your resolutions and pull you toward success.

2.  Engage Grace–When you start your day, bring your goal to God. Think of times throughout the day when it might be difficult for you to remember to follow through with the changes you’d like to make. Think about how you will cooperate with God’s grace to make those situations a success. Ask God for the grace to use these challenging moments as opportunities to grow into the person he wants you to be. Remember what St Thomas Aquinas taught—Grace builds on nature. Bring the changes you are attempting to make in your life or relationships back to God and ask him for the grace to make up for whatever you might lack if left to your own own devices.

3. Make A Shopping List–New changes often require new skills, resources, and support. Before you set out to make a change, take some time to make a list of the resources and support you might need to succeed. What books might help give you new insights or skills? What people can support you? What level of support do you need? Is it enough to find a person to be an accountability partner? Do you need to find someone who will work on the goal with you? Or do you need more professional support of some kind? Don’t shame yourself out of getting the support you need by telling yourself that you should be able to do it on your own with the resources you have. Ask yourself what level of support you would need to guarantee success, then start making arrangements to get that level of support.  The Theology of The Body reminds us that it’s not good for people to try to “go it alone.”  We were made to need others to succeed.  Cultivate the humility that true success requires and allow others to be part of the process

 

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