Trouble-Shooting the Troubled Heart

One of the challenges of living in a world that is so fast paced and intense, is that we can have life events thrown at us at a pace in which we feel that we cannot keep up. In this discussion, we do not use “keeping up” in the sense of staying on top of tasks that need to be completed, but rather we mean it in the sense of processing the many experiences, events, and encounters that come our way. A natural phenomenon that can occur, is that as the days pass, especially during times like we are presently passing through, we can accumulate experiences and significant events that we never had a chance to process. After some time, these unprocessed events and experiences begin to pile up and cause us to begin to feel overwhelmed, unusually anxious, have trouble sleeping, or even feel depressed. When this happens, it is as though our mind is beckoning us to go back and sort through everything we have been bombarded with, and process it fully, before moving on.

We have mastered this concept in many other areas of our life. If our automobile begins to make noises, has a check engine light on, or is just not driving right, we take it into the auto shop for servicing so the problem can be resolved. If we have a tooth ache, we head to the dentist.  For many, when it comes to our emotional life, we struggle to apply these same concepts. The benefits of the ability to investigate and trouble-shoot ourselves should not be underestimated. Many of us have no problem lifting up the hood of our car to take a peek at the engine, yet we struggle to take a peek into our heart to see what might be happening.

As daily “life” happens, we are in a constant state of assigning meanings to encounters, interactions, conversations, world events, events in our lives, and to life changes. These meanings that we assign occur immediately and are deep in meaning. They also often occur on an unconscious level. It doesn’t take too much time before unprocessed life events begin to pile up and begin to cause us distress. Learning to take time, even daily, to sit and sort through all of the things we have been impacted by keeps our inner world functioning and keeps our soul fine-tuned.

Before we can begin processing something that requires it, we have to first be able to detect and identity what are the events, experiences, or changes that are causing the distress. A helpful exercise is to reflect on recent events and ask ourselves the question, “If I could undo certain recent event as though it never happened, how much better would it make me feel?”. “What are the events, changes, or interactions I have had lately that bothered me, but that I didn’t make time to think about?”. It helps also to make a written list of all that we identify. Once we have completed the list we can sit with a piece of paper and draw a large circle and create a pie graph of our present stress or distress. We write in the circle all of the things that are bothering us or acting on us and assign each a certain percentage till all of them equal 100%. Suddenly, this life that we have been living that has made us feel so overwhelmed, appears before us on this piece of paper. It appears organized and contained in the circle with each stressor having its significance identified. This exercise is immensely helpful in making our struggles which often seem abstract (hard to reach or identify) and overwhelming, suddenly seem identified, organized, and contained all on one sheet of paper.  This is a huge step towards mastering our experiences and gaining inner peace. The next step is to begin the processing of each stressor.

It is a fair question to ask, “what does it mean to process something?”.  To process something means to have gained understanding and acceptance about any particular experience, event, or change. It means to have gained a sense of mastery over an experience. It means what happened is now understood, assimilated into our lives, and we have found peace and closure. It may also mean having to get out any emotion associated with the event such as grief or temporary anger. There might be tears or there might be venting. Quite simply, to accomplish this, we have to spend time thinking about what occurred and what meanings we assigned to the event, or experience, or change. We do not do this to stay stuck, we do this so we can move on and not be hindered anymore. To many this sounds like a lot of work. Whether or not it is much work depends upon the event or occurrence. Smaller ones require less attention whereas larger, more significant events and changes require more time and attention. To process something means to understand fully and thoroughly how it affected us. It is only then, that our mind and heart will let us move on without tugging at us, in the form of some emotional distress or a troubled heart, to go back and deal with it.

As we look at what we have written, we may begin to see a certain core theme or meaning that we assigned to all of the stressors. There might a common thread that runs through all of them. We might see that a common theme is powerlessness, disappointment, betrayal, failure, over-control, or loss. Sometimes when we do the aforementioned exercise, we might see that all the stressors are present stressors, not related to any past event. However, that might not always be the case. If we sense that there is something else going on or that we are having a bit too much of a reaction to something, it is helpful to say to ourselves, “okay, I see this common theme or meaning I am assigning to all of these events. When is the first time in my life I remember feeling this way? Upon asking ourselves these questions we may realize that present events are tapping into unresolved past events. In essence, a present-day stressor which would have its own normal amount of stress suddenly feels five times more stressful because of the added influence and effect of the past. However, sometimes present-day stress is just from present day events. Even in these instances, we still need to fully process the present-day events, occurrences, and changes in our life to keep our mind, heart, and soul fine tuned and at peace.

It is not only helpful to write out our stressors on paper in some form, it is also helpful to verbalize them with another person. Verbally processing our day, with all of its significant events, changes, and interactions is a key part of processing events. It is cathartic. It is a way to get our stress identified, up, and out. Studies have shown that the chemicals in our brain that play a role in depression and anxiety decrease when we verbalize our negative feelings.  The one we process with could be anyone; a friend, a spouse, family member, priest, or counselor.

If we did the exercise of the pie graph, we can then go through each stressor and determine our response to it. What does each require? Is there anything I can do about each one? Some of the things we have written might just be what they are, just negative, sad, or upsetting. Even in those instances there is great benefit to having identified it, written, and verbalized it. We can also then get any emotion out related to that stressor. We might find there are some stressors that we can do something about, especially now that we have identified it. Then there are some we find that we can reframe. To reframe a stressor means that once we have identified the meaning we assigned to it, we can revise that negative meaning and reframe it into something positive.  In this instance, the particular stressor happens to be one that it is what we make of it. We realize it was our interpretation of the event that was causing our distress. If we are able  to identify other potential valid interpretations, we can find that the event wasn’t what we initially thought it to be, and that perhaps it was not all negative.

Learning to do these exercises can be part of our ascetical life. It throws open wide the doors to insight and self-awareness. We will feel more grounded, more at peace, more settled, and more confident. Our inner world, our heart, that desert within us, will not seem like such a chaotic or forbidden place. It will be sorted, organized, and known.


About Fr. Joshua Makoul

Fr. Joshua Makoul has been serving as the Dean of St. George Cathedral in Pittsburgh since 2012. Before that time, Fr. Joshua worked in the Counseling Field for 16 years. This involved work in a family-based, school-based, and an outpatient setting. Fr. Joshua received two years of training in family therapy at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center and completed a one year certificate course in Cognitive Behavior Therapy at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. During his last six years working in a small outpatient group, he was supervised by Dr. Jesus Salas who supervises at the Beck Institute in Philadelphia. Fr. Joshua received his Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia and his Bachelors in Psychology from Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. He is licensed in the state of Pennsylvania for counseling. For seminary he attended Holy Cross Seminary in Boston and received an M.Div.

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