Some advice from the current president of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association.
Jennifer Madere, a psychotherapist in Texas, specializes in treating patients who have experienced some type of trauma. “Right now,” she said last week, “we are all going through trauma.”
During this time of social-distancing and limited face-to-face human interaction, she has been meeting with people solely via video sessions. Initially, she found some patients felt it was “refreshing.”
“Everyone was feeling the same anxiety (her patients) feel every day,” Madere said, “so now they felt normal. Everyone was feeling the same part of the human condition they feel all the time, and that brought them some consolation.”
That consolation likely has passed as the novel coronavirus continues to take a toll in the United States and around the world. The result is weighing heavily on millions of people, whether seasoned veterans of mental health issues or others who always considered themselves in tip-top emotional shape.
“Now, the fatigue factor has set in,” she said.
How do we deal with our situations, from our unique-to-each-of-us perspectives, until the current “normal” life passes? As the current president and membership chair of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association, Madere offers some advice.
1Embrace ‘Radical Acceptance’
This is one of the most vital skills many psychologists teach as part of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Although DBT isn’t central to her work, it’s essential for anyone whose life has undergone the type of lifestyle changes the world has experienced.
“A person has to find an anchor to normalcy,” Madere said. “Not that this is normal. It can’t feel normal; it shouldn’t feel normal. But we are called by God to what it is.”
For a Catholic, she advised that could depend upon someone’s type of spirituality.
“Someone with a devotion to Mary could see this like the Blessed Mother’s radical fiat,” she noted, “and similarly say ‘yes’ to God’s will in an ocean of the unknown. Or someone with an Ignatian spirituality could try leaning into the desolation, reminding themselves of the consolation they will receive later.”
That “radical fiat” might involve a pledge of greater trust through prayer. That “leaning in” might involve tuning in to a livestream Mass or Bible study offered by one’s parish or another online source.
2Identify 3-5 key areas in your life
Such a list of priorities might include a hobby, prayer, specific relationships, improved physical health or any variety of other options. Look for a way to honor one or more of those most days.
“It might be getting some exercise. Maybe you never got enough sleep before and now you have a chance to improve that,” Madere said. “Maybe you wanted to eat better and now you can work on cooking the right things. Honor one thing among those priorities, and then maybe another. You shouldn’t try to handle all of them every day. But try to get to two out of five. When you’re finished, you can feel like your day was meaningful.”
3Allow yourself to grieve
Graduations, weddings, funerals and many other signature life events have been canceled or at least postponed. School has ended prematurely for many students; entire sports seasons have been scuttled — things that might be grieved by parents, teachers and coaches as much as the young people.
Catholics haven’t been able to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter annually are highlights of worship for many people; we can never recapture those opportunities for 2020.
“Feeling the loss of something validates how important that is to us,” Madere said. “If we allow ourselves to tune into that feeling, it can be an affirmation of that importance. Let the love for God, for the Mass, for our community or whatever else it is that we feel as a loss sink in and be affirmed.
“Then think: How can I live in that love? And know that I have loved it and only temporarily lost it, because it’s not gone if I still have the love.”
Madere added that it’s perfectly fine to feel anger, which is one of the stages of grief. “You might realize what was lost and wonder, ‘How does something like this happen to me?’ You might find that turning into anger, even being angry with God. That’s okay. Anger validates the loss.”
She suggested connecting that anger with the kind found in Scripture. For instance, see Psalms 13, 35 or 42, or bond with the sorrow, anger and hope that unfolds in the book of Lamentations.
4Recognize negative thoughts
There is a human tendency, Madere observed, toward polarization. In psychological parlance, that can manifest itself in cognitive distortions — thinking that is all-or-nothing, black-or-white, success-or-failure, good-or bad.
“People tend to the negative,” she continued. “It can be reactive, such as ‘if this isn’t what I expected, then it must be something horrible.’ Be aware of that. Try to determine if what you are thinking and feeling is 100 percent true. How am I responding, and is this how I have to respond?”
5Consent to the vulnerability
Madere treats patients who often resist that they have experienced a traumatic event. They might tell themselves, “I’ve had a fairly even-keel life. I’ve never really had to face any adversity.”
Today, Madere said, “people are going through a trauma, something we all were ill-prepared to cope with. People could benefit from allowing themselves to realize what has happened and not to resist it. In doing that, we can reach out and receive what others are offering us. So many people are reaching out, trying to connect with others. That means we have to be vulnerable.”
That also implies a spiritual element.
“It’s the same with God,” she said. “Be vulnerable. Take what God offers.”
The Catholic Psychotherapy Association, almost 15 years old, has 458 members nationwide that includes psychotherapists, counselors and social workers but also many clergy members, with several bishops among them. They have an annual conference — this year’s will be “virtual” — and offer resources and training in secular approaches to counseling that also is faithful to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.
The organization was built primarily for membership and not the general public, although there is a member directory searchable by map and state at http://www.catholicpsychotherapy.org. Madere noted that another resource for someone seeking a Catholic counselor is http://www.catholictherapists.com.