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

Putting Out The Fire–How To Calm The Alarm System in Your Brain and Overcome Anxiety

 

Anxiety is a common experience, we all feel stressed, worried and anxious. But The Theology of The Body (TOB) reminds us that it was never God’s intention that we would be anxious. 

In fact, the first anxiety attack occurred immediately after the Fall, when Adam and Eve felt separated from God and each other…and hid. Interestingly, brain scientists tell us that anxiety isn’t caused so much by problems as it is rooted in a sense of disconnection.

That’s right! Even when we’re going through hard times, if we feel securely attached to the people around us, our brains produce chemicals that help us stay calm. By contrast, even when we aren’t facing problems, if we struggle to feel connected to others, or if our connection to others is being threatened in some way our brain produces chemicals that make us feel anxious. Anxiety is meant to be a message that says, “Go find safe, healthy people to support and help you!” TOB and brain science remind us that the key to peace is seeking union with God and cultivating the community of love God has placed around us.

When we are feeling anxious it can be difficult to make the choice to connect with God and others. Here are a few practical ways to cultivate connection and conquer anxiety:

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

If you would like support in overcoming anxiety, reach out to us at CatholicCounselors.com

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