Stop Labeling Yourself: 3 Steps to Stop Holding Yourself Back

The terms “mental health” and “mental disorder” are extremely common, but research from biological anthropologists are calling into question these definitions in relation to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

New research published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology posed the question, “What if mental disorders like anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder aren’t mental disorders at all?” A summary of the results indicated that, “With a thorough review of the evidence, they show good reasons to think of depression or PTSD as responses to adversity rather than chemical imbalances. And ADHD could be a way of functioning that evolved in an ancestral environment, but doesn’t match the way we live today.”

So what does this mean for our mental health and treatment for such mental health difficulties?

As evidence has shown, we have a tendency to identify with our “emotional problems” in a way that we don’t identify with “physical problems.” When we contract a virus, we don’t say, “I am flu.” We say, “I have the flu.” But when we struggle with anxiety (or other emotional difficulties), especially if we deal with chronic disorders, we do often say, “I am anxious,” or “I am high strung,” or something similar. It becomes an identity statement. The problem is, when we personally identify with the anxiety we feel, we begin to think of it as a necessary part of who we are.

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For more on this topic, check out Unworried: A Life Without Anxiety
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How do we, then, break free from these labels and finally identify with our healed, healthy, “true” selves?

1. Identify with strengths, not weaknesses—To counter the tendency over-identify with our emotions it is important that we make an intentional effort to focus on our strengths. Write down at least one thing you did well every day. Identify the strengths that you displayed in that situation in order to handle that moment well. Prioritizing this thought process enables us to begin to identify with our healthy, true selves, rather than identifying with the areas where we may be struggling.

2. Stick to a routine, create “healthy habits”—No matter what we deal with in our daily lives, having a routine helps us to stay on track and cultivate healthy habits. Routines, like getting up and getting ready at the same time every day, doing chores at the same times every week, and going to bed at the same time every day, help us create order out of chaos and make us feel like we are on top of things. Make time for the things that help you feel good, such as journaling, prayer, exercise, or your favorite activity/hobby.

3. Be a gift to others—Look for ways to serve others, nothing is too small. Bake cookies for a friend, hold the door open for a stranger, let someone in front of you in line, reach out to someone you love or someone you haven’t checked in on in a while. Use your gifts to in big and small ways to be a gift to others. When we reach out to others in this way, we are able to make a positive impact on their lives AND feel good about what we have to offer at the same time.

For more on breaking free from labels and becoming the person you were created to be, visit us online at CatholicCounselors.com and check out Unworried: A Life Without Anxiety.

Get a Grip—Mastering Your Emotional Life

What feelings tend to get the best of you?  Do certain people or situations provoke emotional reactions in you that are hard to get a handle on?  For that matter, does someone you love struggle with their emotions and you’re not sure how to support them?

In order to handle these difficult situations for ourselves and others, it’s helpful to understand the answer to the following question: Are our emotional reactions universal, or are they conditioned by culture and environment?  

Researchers at the University of North Carolina examined the words used to describe feelings in over 2500 languages to see how people in various cultures experienced emotion.  They did find differences in the ways different cultures describe the experience of certain emotions.  For example, some languages view grief as similar to fear and anxiety, whereas others view grief as similar to regret.  But researchers found that ALL cultures think about and categorize emotions in a similar way. Specifically, all languages distinguish emotions primarily based on whether they are pleasant or unpleasant to experience, and whether they involve low or high levels of arousal. For example, no languages view the low-arousal emotion of sadness as similar to the high-arousal emotion of anger, and no languages viewed the pleasant emotion of “happy” as similar to the unpleasant emotion of “regret.”  This suggests that there are universal elements of emotional experience that are rooted in biology more than culture.  The takeaway? The challenge of  understanding, expressing, and cultivating a healthy emotional life is a universal human experience.

Theology of the Body reminds us that just like the rest of our bodies, emotions and feelings can only do what they were designed to do–that is, help us recognize what is happening in and around us and respond to it in godly, effective ways–if we learn to bring our emotions to God and ask him to teach us how to use them. 

Emotions and feelings are two different but related things. Brain scientists tell us that emotions are the body’s monitoring station. Emotions represent the primitive brain’s general, collective sense of both our overall state of our well being and the circumstances in our environment.  Feelings, on the other hand, are what happens when our cortex, our higher brain, gathers all these general impressions and creates a story about what these impressions mean and how we are to respond to them and that’s where things tend to get complicated.  Because of sin, we often do a poor job of evaluating emotional impressions well and developing responses to those impressions that work both for our good and the good of others.  By bringing our emotions to God we can relearn how to let our feelings serve our physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual wellbeing.

Here are a few, effective ways to understand and gain control over your emotional life:

Pause and Pray–Get in the habit of briefly pausing and praying before you act on an emotion–especially a negative emotion like anger, sadness, or anxiety.  When you notice yourself having a strong emotional reaction, pause–even for a second–and say something like, “Lord, help me correctly identify the specific thing I am reacting to and respond to it in a way that will glorify you.”  Brain scientists tell us that pausing even a second or two allows the higher brain to catch up with the emotional reactions generated by our more primitive parts of our brain.  This allows us to make better, and more complete,  responses to the situations that provoked our emotional reaction in the first place.  On top of this, bringing our emotional reactions to God reminds us our feelings aren’t God.  God is.  And everything we do–including acting on our feelings–has to be motivated by a desire to serve him.  If we can get in the habit of doing this, we give both God, and the natural talents for emotional management God built into our body–the opportunity to teach us to handle even the most provocative situations gracefully.

Add Feathers–Do you know how people can be really good at telling others how to manage their emotions but really bad at managing their own?  A new study by the University of Waterloo found that practicing one simple habit can allow people to manage their own responses as well as they can help others manage theirs.  The trick?  Add feathers.  Just like an arrow that has feathers flies straighter than an arrow without them, people who ask themselves what virtues they need to express their emotions well are much better at identifying and hitting the right emotional targets than people who just act on feeling.  If you want to be as good at taking your own advice as giving it, before you act on an emotion, ask yourself, “What virtue would help me express this emotion well?”  The study found that asking simple virtue-based questions like this helps people both avoid the temptation to repress negative emotions and also helps people make better emotional choices by reminding them to keep the big picture in mind. Next time you feel a strong emotional reaction welling up, don’t just let it fly with your feelings.  Add feathers, and let virtue guide the path toward the right response.

Get a Boost–Sometimes it can be too hard to learn to handle our feelings on our own.  If your emotional reactions are consistently complicating your life or relationships, seek professional help.  Psychotherapy is like physical therapy for the brain.  New research shows that modern therapy techniques help boost the brain’s ability to process emotional reactions more efficiently and identify healthy responses to emotions more effectively.  You don’t have to be a victim of your emotional reactions.  If you aren’t happy with the way your feelings are causing you to respond to the people or situations in your life, getting professional help sooner than later can help you get the skills you need to have a healthier emotional life.

For more information on gaining control of your emotional life, check out God Help Me! This Stress Is Driving Me Crazy!, and visit us online at CatholicCounselors.com.

The Small Changes That Lead To Greater Happiness

Do you ever just feel “off,” but you don’t know why? Everything seems to be fine, daily life is running along relatively smoothly, but you just feel down, melancholy, or disconnected from life/others?

A new study out of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Texas A&M reveals that making small changes—such as smiling more—can make an impact on our emotions and overall mood. It seems like a small change, but a meta-analysis of 138 studies demonstrates that smiling really can make us happier. 

“We don’t think that people can smile their way to happiness,” lead researcher, Nicholas Coles, said. “But these findings are exciting because they provide a clue about how the mind and the body interact to shape our conscious experience of emotion.”

If simply smiling more can make an impact on our emotions, what are some other ways for us to lift our mood and feel reconnected?

Acts of kindness—Buy coffee for the person behind you in line, pick up flowers for your significant other on your way home from work, volunteer at the local food pantry. Acts of kindness give us the opportunity to go outside of ourselves and do something to help and bring joy to others. In return, this helps us to feel more positive, purpose driven, and connected to others!

Set daily goals—Setting small, daily goals allows us to feel proactive, productive, and in control. These goals can be anything from doing one load of laundry, to spending five minutes outside, or even simply brushing your teeth on days where accomplishing a larger goal just doesn’t feel doable. Choose whatever small, attainable goal appeals to you each day. It’s not about the task itself, its about the feeling of accomplishment!

Pray—Take time to pray each day. Share with God what you are thinking and feeling. No emotion is too big or small for God to handle. Ask God to help you express your emotions in ways that glorify Him. Setting aside time to pray, or simply praying as we go about your daily activities helps us to feel reconnected to God, to our surroundings, and to our purpose. 

Listen to music—Listen to music that reflects the mood you want to be in, not the mood that you are in. Often when we are sad, angry, etc. we listen to music that reflects that mood. This typically causes us to remain in this mood, however, listening to music that reflects the mood you want to be in (i.e. listening to happy music when you are sad or listening to energetic music when you are tired) actually causes us to adjust to a mood that better matches the music we are listening to. Surprisingly, this can make a big difference in our emotions throughout the day. 

For more on increasing positive emotions, check out Unworried: A Life Without Anxiety and tune in to More2Life—weekdays at 10am E/9am C on EWTN, SiriusXM 130!

Practically Perfect in Every Way – Three More2Life Hacks for Overcoming Perfectionism

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In the age of social media, self-criticism and perfectionism are more prominent than ever. We continue to become increasingly focused on being “perfect”: having the perfect physique, having the perfect job, or keeping the perfect house. In reality, however, this striving for “perfection” simply makes us increasingly unhappy as we lose focus of what we are really working towards.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve ourselves, but both theology and science show us that it is a mistake to believe that we can somehow mentally force ourselves into perfection.

Theology of the Body reminds us that God’s plan for us is written in the design of our bodies. Brain science shows that the more self-critical we are, the more our brains lock down and become resistant to change. It’s actually self-acceptance that creates the chemistry necessary for new neural connections to form.  Ultimately, it’s important to remember that while none of us is perfect, it is God’s love that perfects us.  We are destined to be, as Jesus puts it, “perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect” God does not expect us to get there on our own.  TOB teaches us that it only by cultivating a receptive posture to God’s love and grace that we are able to be transformed from the inside out through an authentic encounter with God’s love.  Perfection doesn’t come from flogging ourselves to be better. It comes from letting God love us and learning to see ourselves as he sees us–works in progress, certainly–but on the road, by his love and grace, to becoming the whole, healed, godly, grace-filled people we are meant to be.

Here are three More2Life Hacks for preventing perfectionism from taking its toll on you:

Mind Your Mind–Beating yourself up, feeling “not good enough,” engaging in  self criticism are all signs that your brain is overheating. Brain science shows that giving into these behaviors actually makes the brain resistant to change as it locks down in the face of a perceived threat.  When you hear that inner-critic ramping up, don’t try to challenge those thoughts directly at first.  Instead, remind yourself that self-criticism is just a symptom of the real problem–trying to do too much, too fast.  Give yourself permission to slow down, to create more realistic goals, and make a more realistic plan.  Remind yourself that jobs take the time they take.  Getting mad at them, or yourself, doesn’t alter time.  It just makes you less able to make good time by making you less efficient and less effective.

Deadline and Done–Perfectionistic people have a hard time just walking away. They always feel like they have to add just a little more or review it just one more time. A better approach is to pretend that you are on one of those reality shows where you have a certain amount of time to complete a task and when the clock runs down you have to step away and be done.  Whether you are working on a particular project or trying to plan your day, give yourself what you think will be a reasonably generous amount of time to accomplish your tasks, but when that time hits, walk away.  You can always come back to it some other time if you need to.  But for today? Be done! Perfectionistic people tend to get lost in the details and lose sight of the big picture. Setting an arbitrary deadline allows you to step back and gain perspective.  If a particular project really needs a little more effort, then it will still be there tomorrow. For now, move on to other things–like taking a break to connect with the people who love you and can remind you that you are a person, not a machine.

What’s the Point?  Perfectionism is almost always a faulty means to achieve some deeper end.  We WANT love, approval, validation, acceptance, peace, but we PURSUE being a perfect employee, a perfect parent, a perfect homemaker, a perfect…whatever.  But the harder we work at being perfect, the further we get from satisfying the real emotional need driving our perfectionism.  Ask yourself what the point of your perfectionism really is.  Take some time in prayer to reflect on what you are trying to accomplish–emotionally and spiritually–by being so self-critical and task oriented?  When you find yourself giving into the temptation to perfectionism, remind yourself what you are REALLY looking for, and ask yourself what you would need to do to get that?  If you honestly don’t know, then it’s time to seek some help so that you can step off the hamster wheel and start getting your needs met instead of constantly running but never getting anywhere.

For more information on how to strive to be the person God meant you to be, check out Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart, and tune in to More2Life Monday-Friday 10am E/9am C on EWTN, SiriusXM 139.

New Study Shows Talk Therapy Can Change Brain Function of Schizophrenics

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Talk therapy can be best understood as physical therapy for the brain.  Many previous studies have been shown to have a positive impact on the brain functioning of depressed and anxious patients, changing the way clients’ brains process, feel, and respond to stress.  Exciting new research shows that even patients who suffer from psychosis (e.g., intrusive auditory and visual hallucinations) and schizophrenia can experience significant improvements in brain function as the result of talk therapy.   But how?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a school of psychology that focuses on “reframing,” or changing the way an individual thinks about and responds to their thoughts and experiences as well as developing strategies to reduce stress and improve mental health and well-being.

A study conducted by King’s College London shows that CBT strengthens the “connections between key regions of the brain involved in processing social threat accurately.” Furthermore, this study revealed that the techniques of CBT show increased “connectivity between several brain regions — most importantly the amygdala (the brain’s threat centre) and the frontal lobes (which are involved in thinking and reasoning) — are associated with long-term recovery from psychosis.”

In other words, individuals who experience psychotic symptoms such as those common in schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorder, can benefit from CBT by “learning to think differently about unusual experiences, such as distressing beliefs that others are out to get them.”

“The findings, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, follow the same researchers’ previous work which showed that people with psychosis who received CBT displayed strengthened connections between key regions of the brain involved in processing social threat accurately.

The researchers of this and other studies explained that individual’s struggling with psychosis often turn immediately to medication for relief from their symptoms. However, the results of this study demonstrate that while CBT is effective during the time the individual is receiving counseling, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy also gives the individual the tools necessary to positively impact long-term recovery.

To discover how Cognitive-Behavior Therapy can help your brain deal with stress, depression, anxiety and other emotional problems more effectively, contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Tele-Counseling practice to make an appointment to speak with a counselor.

Faith on the Couch–Already Courting Controversy

Over at our More2Life Radio facebook page, a correspondent has issues with this whole enterprise of mixing faith and psychology.

He writes, “Not sure why one would take our faith and enter a belief system that does not accept the tenets of the faith – the mental health profession.

This seems extremely dangerous.

A system that is based on the belief that man is solely a biological entity; based on the belief that thoughts and emotions are the product of brain chemicals; based on a denial of the existence of the soul; based on a denial of the existence of an afterlife; and based on the view that God is a delusion, an evolutionary adaptation that has outlived its usefulness, does not seem compatible with faith, which holds contrary views.

Is is not time to turn instead to pastoral routes to healing and turn away from a profession that has turned away from faith?

While I am not unfamiliar with his point of view, I wonder if the habit of intellectually cherry-picking random facts to discredit an institution is really the best way to go.  After all, hasn’t the same approach been used by those who wish to discredit the Church.  To wit:  “Not sure why one would take their good common sense and enter a belief system that does not accept the tenets of the science – the Roman Catholic Church.

This seems extremely dangerous.

A system that is based on the belief that man must make himself solely a puppet of God’s will; based on the belief that thoughts and emotions are the product of angels and demons whispering in your ear; based on a denial of logic and reason; based on a denial of simple facts of biology; and based on the view that God is some all-powerful Santa, a father-fantasy intent on keeping people content in their misery, does not seem compatible with reason and science, which holds contrary views.

Is is not time to turn instead to empirically proven routes to healing and turn away from a profession of voodoo-priests who molest children in their spare time?”

It seems to me that this is exactly the sort of sloppy thinking that the faithful need to avoid.  As Pope John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio, “Faith without reason is superstition.”  He also wrote that reason without faith  leads to nihilism–i.e., the ability to know the price of everything and everyone but the value of nothing.

St Thomas Aquinas also took the view that man understands God best when he is open to both revelation and to science.  In fact, the Catholic Church practically invented scientific inquiry because it understood that we can learn a lot about God by studying his fingerprints on the sculpture of creation.  Even moreso, since he has intimately united himself to all of creation through Christ Jesus.

An institution, whether clerical or clinical, cannot be dismissed simply because some will abuse their power or misrepresent what is true.

That said, my interlocuter has a point.  Psychology (or religion for that matter) is not completely benign.  It has genuine power to heal, but in the wrong hands, it has power to hurt as well.  My practice is filled with many clients who are trying to recover from the pain they suffered from previous therapists who could not or would not respect their faith journey. Marriages broken by marriage-hostile counselors, parents alientated from children by therapists who undermined their power, people who were lost to confusion and even despair when mental health professionals mocked their faith.

Of course, I have also been witness–and I am pleased to say I have also been a part–of many people’s journey toward healing.  Couples reunited.  Families made whole.  People discovering the truth about who God made them to be because of the integration of faith and reason in the services of psychological healing.

What do you think?  Is there a place for the integration of psychology and faith?  What are your experiences of counseling?  Largely good?  Largely bad?  I’m interested in your experience.

Catholicism and Psychology–Perfect Together?

Welcome Readers!

In preparing to write the inaugural post for this blog, a re-imagined version of an old,  popular candy commercial popped into my mind…

SCENE: A shrink and a Catholic priest are walking around a grocery store. They absentmindedly bump into each other and their purchases fall on the floor, getting all mixed together.

SHRINK: You’ve got your chocolate in my mayo!

PASTOR: You’ve got your mayo in my chocolate!

TOGETHER: Hey! THAT’S…. DISGUSTING!!!

There are any number of people on both sides of the fence who think that psychology and religious faith (and perhaps, especially, Catholicism) go together like…well, two things that don’t go so great together. My hope is that this blog will help my fellow Catholics, and people-of-faith in general,  both appreciate the helpful role psychology can play in their lives and also become faithful, discerning consumers of psychological news and insights.

Although this blog will, at times, address topics related to general spirituality, my primary focus will be more on the intersection of religious faith and mental/emotional/relational health and specifically, how Catholicism might best interact with current trends in psychology.

The Catholic Church has taken a lot of hits over the last decade–many self-inflicted.  Religion, in general, is seen as being on-the-ropes in our current culture.  It is often said that we live in a post-Christian age.  Although the number of people identifying as “spiritual but not religious” is growing, and rates of religious non-affiliation among 18-29 yo’s has doubled from 8-16% (according to Pew) in the last decade or so, 80% of the US population still claims affiliation with one denomination or another (with 70-75% of those are various Christian denominations and the remainder divided between Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other faithful) and 40% of the US adults claim weekly Church attendance.  Despite the fact that religion’s influence has decreased, in this day of hyper-partisanship and cultural-compartmentalizing, it seems to me that getting 40% of Americans to do anything on a given day every week is something just shy of a miracle.  Religion is still a powerful force in our culture.

Likewise, it would be hard for anyone to deny that psychological insights and doctrines impact everyone for good or ill.  Psychological terms like “self-esteem,” “drive,” “sibling rivalry,” “actualization,” “identity,” and so on are part of almost everyone’s vocabulary. And, of course, Catholics are not strangers to psychological counseling.

Regarding this last point about mental health treatment, Catholics face a special challenge.  As fellow Patheos blogger, Mark Shea, is fond of noting,  the sociologist, Peter Berger once remarked that if India was the most religious nation in the world and Sweden the least, then the US is a country of Indians ruled by Swedes. We might as well say the same thing about mental health in the US; specifically, the US is a nation of Indian patients treated by Swedish shrinks.

Is that as it should be? Do the non-religious “Swedes” doing the treatment planning know something the religious “Indian” clients don’t? Can we in the mental health biz be comfortable with maintaining this attitude in this age of multiculturalism? What would it mean for religion and psychology to get beyond tolerating each other and, instead, creatively engage each other? And specifically, since this is a Catholic blog, is there such a thing as a Catholic approach to psychology and, if so, what would it look like and why?  Can psychology help us live our faith more effectively?  If so, how?

These are some of the questions I hope to address. Sometimes I’ll be able to answer questions, and more often my posts will just raise more question for you. But I think that’s just fine. After all, religious faith and psychology are both quests to discover ultimate truths about (with apologies to Douglas Adams) the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. And we can’t get anywhere without asking big questions. Chances are we won’t always agree, but hopefully, we can learn from each other.

Thanks for beginning this new adventure with me!