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By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

Mental Health sign

Q:  I have a very quick temper, and I feel a lot of resentment toward people who have hurt me in the past. I have a hard time letting things go. I’m not sure what I can do to control it.

A:  While it can be perfectly appropriate to be angry, in the short run, with someone who has wronged you, the kind of anger you describe is a dangerous tool to wield and is one that often does more damage to the one who wields it.

Anger & Playing the Victim

One of the reasons anger (or wrath) is listed among the seven deadly sins is that if we allow it to sit in our hearts for too long, it poisons us, first toward others, then ourselves. We begin to view everyone with suspicion and build walls designed to protect us from being vulnerable. Unfortunately, those walls ultimately “protect” us from loving and being loved. As Aristotle once observed, only the wisest person can get angry in the right way, at the right person, to the right degree. Most of us aren’t that wise.  Psychologically speaking, most angry people see themselves as victims. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “Dear me, I think I’ll be bitter and vindictive today!” Instead, we see ourselves as picked on, put upon, or otherwise wronged by some insensitive other or others, and we use our self-diagnosed victim status to justify our own shabby treatment of other people. While, under normal circumstances, we would never think of being intentionally irritable, or vindictively petty toward another person, we tell ourselves that because they have committed some crime against us, there is nothing else we can do. We feel powerless in the face of the offense, and this powerlessness justifies–in our minds–our nursing our anger and in turn, treating others badly.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking represents a particular cognitive distortion (i.e., false thinking pattern) called, “external control fallacies.” The person under the influence of an external control fallacy believes himself to be powerless in his circumstances and so he lashes out, like a toddler who has been frustrated; all rage and no reason, much less, purpose. But here is the good news, while we can often feel powerless, it is extremely rare that we actually are powerless. There is always some small thing we can do to begin to take charge of our circumstances and plan a charitable, effective way through our problem, one small step at a time. To begin to overcome the ingrained anger you describe, try the following tips.

Overcoming Your Anger

1. Remind yourself that powerlessness is a luxury you can’t afford. You–no one else–must find the answer to this problem. Stop pouting and get to work.

2. Take time by yourself to pray and think things through. When we are frustrated, we tend to complain to everyone who will listen, but we can’t solve anything if we are more concerned with complaining (and attacking). Close your mouth and engage your brain.

3. If you can’t find a solution, find one or two wise people you can seek advice from. Don’t blab to everyone and their uncle. They are probably as clueless as you are.  Consult a wise friend or mentor, your pastor, or a counselor.

4. Recognize when you need more comprehensive help. Ingrained anger is the mother of depression. If you are irritable most of the time and it is affecting your life and relationships, consult a professional.

Finally, for more information on dealing with the anger that comes from dealing with difficult circumstances and people, check out my book, God Help Me! These People are Driving Me Nuts.  

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Q:  I suffer from depression. My family doctor told me that I have a chemical imbalance and that I will need to take medication. I am reluctant to do so unless it is absolutely necessary. Do you have any recommendations?

A:  Ultimately, the treatment for your depression must be determined between you and your doctor, but you might benefit from some additional information. While it is accurate to say that emotional problems are the result of a “chemical imbalance” this phrase is somewhat misleading because it implies that you are doomed to be a victim of your messed-up physiology. This is simply not the case.

Be Not Afraid

The truth is that every thought you think, every belief you hold, and every behavior you exhibit sends a wash of neuro-chemicals through your body. So, if you are thinking irrationally, have erroneous beliefs about your life and relationships, or are making unhealthy choices, you are actually creating the chemical imbalance that exists in your body, and there is much you can do to correct it through psychotherapy.  Medical research indicates that with as little as 12 weeks of a type of counseling called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), most patients can significantly reduce or eliminate the symptoms of their emotional problems even without medication. Similarly, it is not uncommon for clients who were on medication at the start of counseling to improve so much that they can be weaned off of their medications while still maintaining symptom relief. Amazingly, neuro-imaging technologies (PET, fMRI) have even shown that psychotherapy alone can cause the brain to rewire itself, allowing it to function in a healthier fashion. It is research like this that allows us to think of counseling as a kind of, “physical therapy for the brain.”

That said, it is often best to attack a problem from as many directions as possible. In addition to counseling, ask your doctor to suggest both medications and alternatives (such as diet, exercise, and possibly natural supplements) that could mitigate some of the physiological aspects of your illness. At the same time, take full advantage of the sacraments, especially Anointing of the Sick, to address the spiritual dimensions of the problem. Just as God is an intimate communion of three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), we who are made in his image and likeness are an intimate communion of body, mind, and spirit. By approaching your depression from the medical, psychological and spiritual angels, you are designing an intervention that will heal your whole person.  With the help of your doctor, a good counselor, a caring pastor, and the Lord’s grace, it is absolutely possible to achieve the complete healing you desire.

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Q: I’m worried about stress in my preteen (11 year old) child. What are signs of stress that I should be looking for?

A: A recent study discovered the alarming statistic that children considered “normal” by contemporary standards exhibited the same degree of anxiety and stress demonstrated by child psychiatric patients of the 1950’s.     Rates of childhood depression, anxiety disorders, drug use, and suicide are skyrocketing. Clearly, to quote Madeline’s Miss Clavel, “Somesing eez not right.”

Healthy Relationships: An Antidote

Stress is endemic to our culture, and unfortunately, the most effective antidote to stress, close, supportive relationships, is also under attack. Time magazine recently reported that the average American family spends approximately 15 minutes a day actually relating to each other. The rest of our time is consumed by activities; school, work, clubs, lessons, and other commitments for both parents and children. And that was a two-parent family. All of these activities, valuable and enriching though they may be on their own, have the cumulative effect of choking off the lifeline of every human person; intimate contact with others.  So to return to your question, is your child stressed to an unhealthy degree? Consider the following questions. Does he seem to enjoy things less than he used to? Is he struggling with perfectionism? Is his school performance deteriorating? Is his behavior taking a dive? Does he seem more irritable than usual? Is he struggling with concentration or comprehension? Is his relationship with you or his siblings strained? Is he sleeping more or less than usual? Is he eating more or less than usual? Does he not seem to have many friends? Does he complain of non-specific aches and pains? Answering, “yes” to two or more of these questions may indeed mean that your child is suffering, to one degree or another, a greater amount of stress than is healthy.

What to do about it? Two simple things can make all the difference. First, simplify. Insist that your child focus on one or two extra-curricular activities at a time, at the most. Too many lessons, sports, or hobbies cease to enrich one’s life and begin to clutter it, creating stress in their wake. Don’t be fooled if your child says he likes all the business, he may be addicted to that adrenaline.  Second, strengthen the parent child relationship–even if you think it is already good. Use the time you gain from cutting back on outside activities to increase the amount of time you spend enjoying life as a family. Play more games together. Read aloud to each other. Make time for regular family prayer and praise. And as Pope John Paul II suggested in this letter on the Lord’s Day, make sure that at least one day a week is reserved for activities the whole family can enjoy.  As intimacy increases, stress decreases. Stress proof your child by giving him time to just be, to love, and to be loved.

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If you or someone in your family are struggling with any of the above issues discussed in this article, don’t wait, call your PaxCare Tele-Coach today and find the solutions you may be so desperately  seeking.