How can you tell if a problem is spiritual or psychological?

Healing isn’t just a retreat experience — it’s much deeper

Therese Bussen

While it seems that culture still tends to fight the stigma of mental illness, Catholic psychologists say that it is lessening. A giant step.

However, for Catholics, because the spiritual and psychological have so much overlap, distinguishing a problem as a spiritual one or a human one can be difficult — and even then, they’re still very connected. Healing is actually a much more dynamic process, and one that God includes us in through human means.

Healing isn’t just a retreat

“Generally, God uses the normal means for a person to heal. Sometimes, there’s a misconception that healing takes place at a retreat,” said Malise Lagarde Harold, director of the Catholic Counseling Service in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

In her practice, Harold has seen people misunderstand healing and feeling happy. Healing, and growing in happiness, take work, which doesn’t always feel good.

“We can associate healing with feeling good — being happy and feeling good are two different things,” Harold said.

She pointed out the tendency people have to confuse God’s voice in their human emotions, when emotions are just that: part of being human. The negative emotions that people may experience in healing or in making good decisions aren’t a solid indicator of where God wants us to be.

“God doesn’t speak to us through feelings, he speaks to us through the intellect; just because something feels good to them, that’s probably not a good way to confirm God’s voice. True happiness comes by way of virtue. When you make good and virtuous decisions and actions consistently, you’ll be happy, but it doesn’t always feel good,” Harold said.

“There’s a huge component of feelings, that, ‘If I don’t feel good, there must be something wrong,’ I think people confuse that. We have to remember that not all pain is bad. Someone can experience pain when he has done something wrong and that pain is a function of a properly formed conscience,” she added.

God doesn’t speak to us through feelings, he speaks to us through the intellect; just because something feels good to them, that’s probably not a good way to confirm God’s voice. True happiness comes by way of virtue.”

True peace is wholeness, but that is not always experienced as emotional peace.

“You might feel terrible, but you did the good and virtuous thing; instead of falling into negative rumination, you chose well,” Harold said. “There’s this week to week, ‘How did we work on that,’ forming habits and ways of thinking. When you’re mentally healthy, there’s more room for grace because grace builds on nature.”

“I think it’s important that Catholics understand that we have psychological problems, too, and it’s important to recognize that God uses the normal means of healing,” Harold added.

Spiritual or psychological?

So how can you tell when a problem is more spiritual or psychological? How do you approach it? Do you need a spiritual director, a therapist, or both?

“Spiritual direction is more about where God is working in your life. With psychology, we help people be more aware of how God can help them find healing,” said Dr. Jim Langley, a licensed psychologist at St. Raphael Counseling in Denver.

Dr. Langley said that often, it’s best to have a spiritual director as well as a therapist — and sometimes, they may even work together. Especially when the line between the two is overlapping.

But there are ways to tell which is which, Dr. Langley said.

“What makes distinguishing [spiritual from psychological] is that evil can mimic psychological symptoms, when really the core issue is something spiritual. But the more common case, it’s two sides of the same coin. More often than not, they need both spiritual and psychological healing,” Dr. Langley said.

When you’re mentally healthy, there’s more room for grace because grace builds on nature.”

“Evil gets into our emotional wounds, that’s the most common one,” Dr. Langley added. “[But] if someone’s accessing the sacraments and deliverance prayer, and [it doesn’t go away], there’s a psychological problem that needs to be dealt with first.”

He also said that spiritual issues tend to be contained into one area of a person’s life, whereas psychological problems “affect them across the board.”

Like Harold, he stressed that healing best takes place in both realms — but it’s usually not a miracle cure.

“In order to address a spiritual/psychological wound, the first thing you need is God’s grace. And he also gives you the courage to do something about it. A huge part of healing is you participating in it,” Dr. Langley said.

Seeking help

Both Harold and Dr. Langley agreed that many people wait too long to get psychological help — and that these issues can be healed with the right treatment.

“I think when you have a problem, and nothing else has worked, and it’s still there, they’re waiting until they can’t feel that way anymore, they should get help sooner,” Dr. Langley said.

Some of the most common issues people should seek help for are anxiety, depression, grief work, trauma, marriage and family counseling, as well as two issues that are more common than people realize: perfectionism and pornography.

Perfectionism can become a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder or scrupulosity, said Dr. Langley. And therapy for pornography, along with spiritual help, can treat the underlying emotional wounds that led a person to the addiction in the first place.

In order to address a spiritual/psychological wound, the first thing you need is God’s grace. And he also gives you the courage to do something about it. A huge part of healing is you participating in it.”

“It’s hard because that’s a very taboo thing. People mention it at pulpits, and yet, people are so reluctant to get actual help. It’s a huge issue. Psychology is pretty darn good at dealing with these issues,” Dr. Langley said.

There’s no shame in therapy, and it’s something Catholics should seek to better live their vocation.

“Counseling can help individuals, married couples, and families to live their vocation to love more fully. This is certainly true for persons experiencing addictions, compulsive behaviors, grief and loss, and difficulties coping with life’s stressful events,” said Dr. Linda Montagna, executive director of Regina Caeli Clinical Services.

There’s also no shame in medication when it’s necessary; however, Harold suggests that it be used with more severe cases of mental illness.

“Research shows that medication for depression, for example, is no better than a placebo. It is a bit like a Band-Aid. The problem is that there is a lack of understanding of the cause of both anxiety and depression. Changing the perspective on the issue [that causes someone anxiety or depression] will remedy the disorder,” Harold said.

“Medication has a place, though, and should be considered for the more severe cases of mental illness where potential harm, injury or death come into play or those psychotic states which can benefit from some chemical stabilization.”

For more information on St. Raphael Counseling, visit straphaelcounseling.com/mdesterrestraphaelcounselingcom. For more information on Regina Caeli Counseling, visit ccdenver.org/reginacaeli.

COMING UP: What you need to know before you talk to your loved one about porn

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What you need to know before you talk to your loved one about porn

It can and has been overcome — and you can be a crucial support

Therese Bussen

The statistics today are overwhelming.

According to Fight the New Drug (FTND), a non-religious and non-political organization whose aim is to change cultural perception on pornography through the simple facts of its harm, recently released stats that reveal just how much porn people watch. In 2016 alone, Pornhub got 23 billion visits — 64 million a day.

Just looking at the numbers, it’s not a secret that someone you know probably is or was addicted to pornography at one point.

So, at some point, a conversation will be had. And it’s important to be had. You may be the only person in your loved one’s life who may do so.

So, how do you approach the topic? And what happens after?

With your friend

FTND has several blog posts on the topic of starting the conversation. One suggests saying something calmly, such as, “I saw this and was wondering if this has been a long-time struggle and if it’s something that you are fighting to be free of.”

“In approaching this topic at all, whether it’s you struggling with pornography, your friend, a family member, your partner, the most important thing is to remove shame from the conversation. It’s important to understand that coming forward and asking for help is a huge thing,” said Natale McAneney, chief operating officer of FTND.

The most important thing after removing shame is being as open, honest and loving as possible.

“Let them know they’re not alone, and that there’s lots of hope,” McAneney added.

With your partner

Having a conversation with your significant other can be difficult, but it can be extremely healing and potentially help the person addicted overcome their struggle, having the right support.

Again, McAneney stressed removing shame from the conversation, and being as educated on the effects of porn as much as possible.

She also noted that it’s important to recognize the difficulty the non-addicted partner experiences as a result of their loved one’s addiction.

“When it’s your own relationship, you likely have your own feelings attached, to this struggle of, ‘I’m not attractive enough,’ [etc.]. It puts you in a place where you feel you’re at fault, and you feel massive amounts of betrayal,” McAneney said.

“Having this conversation, there’s a lot of emotions attached, but it’s important to be open and honest with your own feelings, and be as open as possible with their struggle, and let them know that you’re there to support them, if you feel that you’re in a position to do so,” McAneney added.

There are resources for both partners — in overcoming porn addiction, as well as recovering from betrayal trauma.

In approaching this topic at all, whether it’s you struggling with pornography, your friend, a family member, your partner, the most important thing is to remove shame from the conversation.”

“It’s important to look at the options and find something that works for you. There are lots online, there are lots in person, therapy is good for both partners,” McAneney said.

She stressed that, while recovery for either person has its own set of challenges, it can and has been overcome by many people.

“The key thing is the person struggling has to have a desire to stop. That’s a huge part of the equation. And the partner has to be as supportive as possible,” McAneney said. “Communication during recovery is important, and making sure expectations are clearly set.”

With your kids

With children, the conversation is best had early on, and often, according to McAneney.

“This is one of those things that there isn’t a formula, but by not talking to them about porn, it is not doing them any favors,” McAneney said. “Chances are good that they’ve already seen it or heard about it, or they will see it or hear about it. It’s important for parents to be the first point of contact.”

While there are various filters for devices that can help, the most helpful thing is to take the time to talk and ask them what they already know or have seen, “even if it’s uncomfortable.”

“Kids are mortified to tell parents — same thing, remove shame as much as possible, educate them on the harmful effects, and getting resources to help. There are a lot of therapists willing to help younger kids,” McAneney said. “The porn industry is smart, and they know if they get them hooked early, they’ll probably have them for life.”

It’s also important for parents to understand that there’s nothing wrong with your child and that they’re not the only one struggling, McAneney added.

There’s always hope

While these can be difficult conversations, ultimately, they’re worth it, because the addiction can and has been overcome.

“We have chemicals that tell our brains to come back to things because they were fun, and the same thing happens with porn. But it works in the same way to reverse it,” McAneney said. “Honestly, it’s different [for how long that takes] for every person, but we always recommend jumping back into hobbies, that give you the same good feelings.”

McAneney equated the worldwide public health issue that is porn to cigarettes — how for a time, it was culturally acceptable and even thought of as good, and then when the harmful effects were discovered, then the goal was to change the conversation about it from acceptable to harmful to health.

“There was a time we thought it was good, and then we were aware of the effects,” McAneney said. “The goal is to normalize that it’s healthier not to be addicted, and normalize that both men and women struggle with it.”

For more information on Fight the New Drug, visit fightthenewdrug.org.

Prevention and Recovery resources

Fight the New Drug: reference guide, parents guideline and Fortify book http://fightthenewdrug.org/get-help/

Fortify (program by Fight the New Drug): an interactive online recovery program, with app – https://www.fortifyprogram.org/

The Porn Effect: http://theporneffect.com/

Covenant Eyes: http://www.covenanteyes.com/

Integrity Restored: http://integrityrestored.com/

Reclaim: https://reclaimsexualhealth.com/

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Create in Me a Clean Heart” document http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/pornography/upload/Create-in-Me-a-Clean-Heart-Statement-on-Pornography.pdf

National Center on Sexual Exploitation: http://endsexualexploitation.org/

Protect Young Minds: https://protectyoungminds.org/

Educate Empower Kids: http://educateempowerkids.org/resources/

St. Raphael Counseling, porn recovery group: https://www.straphaelcounseling.com/work/

Regina Caeli Catholic Counseling: https://ccdenver.org/reginacaeli/

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