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Catholic priest, psychologist offer advice for stressful times

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by Perry West

Denver Newsroom, Jun 5, 2020 / 03:00 am MT (CNA).- With disturbing and frightening news dominating the headlines in recent weeks, a psychologist and a priest suggested that Catholics take care to guard their psychological and spiritual health.

Just as much of the country has started easing quarantine restrictions intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, many states are now seeing unrest following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in police custody.

A May 25 video that has circulated widely online shows an officer with the Minneapolis Police Department kneeling on Floyd’s neck for several minutes after he was taken into custody. Floyd could be heard saying “I can’t breathe” several times. He died soon after.

Cities across the U.S. have seen widespread protests against police brutality and racism in the wake of Floyd’s death. Some protests have turned to nights of rioting, and conflicts with police. At least five people have died amid the protests.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was arrested May 29, and has been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. The other officers present at the scene have been charged with aiding and abetting.

In some cases, the death of George Floyd may affect people more deeply than the pandemic has, said Jennifer Madere, president of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association (CPA).

“The pandemic was perceived more as external, whereas experiences of injustice, and oppression bring up our own pain and trauma,” she told CNA.

Several members of the CPA noted an increase in feelings of anxiety, confusion, distress, mourning, and anger in recent weeks. Some people may be retreating into themselves as they process the fear and trauma surrounding them.

Dr. Christina Lynch, a supervising psychologist for Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, said that Floyd’s death, and the protests and riots that have followed, have added an additional sense of insecurity to the feeling of turbulence already present due to the coronavirus pandemic.

She stressed the value of staying connected to friends, family, and neighbors during this time, noting that isolation can be detrimental to mental health.

“Isolation leads to loneliness which can increase our stress levels. Constant stress and fear can lead to anger and sadness – which in the end can cause a spike in depression without the person being aware,” she said. “It is important to talk about your concerns and feelings with a trusting person. Seek positive solutions to the current events rather than instilling further fear. Speak to others about what positive outcomes can come from bad situations.”

She also encouraged people to spend time focusing on gratitude, taking time every day to write down five blessings and sharing their appreciation with others.

“It is wise to watch a minimum of news, just enough to stay safe. It is important to exercise, eliminate alcohol (a depressant) and eat less sugar. Take deep breaths and breath out the anxiety physically. If possible, go for walks outside and get some vitamin D, smile at others, this can stimulate our internal joy,” she added.

“Neurologically one can change their negative thinking by writing down (pen and paper) positive thoughts at least 27 [times]. That can help build positive connections.”

Lynch also stressed the importance of a healthy spirituality. She encouraged Catholics to invite others to pray for peace in the local community and through social media. She also urged people to embrace greater acts of charity.

“My advice would be to make our Catholic faith contagious and choose to positively come against fear and choose to be proactive in promoting hope,” she said. “Pray each morning for internal peace and most of all think positive. Remember thinking is believing. The more positive you think, the more you build positive neurological connections in the brain.”

“Do acts of kindness such as calling people in your church community to see how they are doing,” she added. “The more kind acts we do, the better we feel about ourselves, which will in turn help us to be more proactive in doing more acts of kindness.”

Father John Nepil, a theology professor for St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, told CNA that in times of anxiety and fear, it is particularly important to embrace the love of God. He said the world’s turmoil can be an opportunity for greater conversion.

“We have become convinced as Americans that as long as we’re comfortable and healthy, everything is fine. We’ve [now] realized that there’s no guarantee for that, nor is that always in our best interest,” he said.

“One of the great mistakes we make as Americans is to think that we’re the nice people and that this is just evil people who do these things. I think as Christians, we have to deeply understand ourselves as bound to the actions of our brothers and sisters and responsible for them.”

Nepil stressed that racism, like any form of violence, is an inherent violation of human dignity. He encouraged Catholics to offer prayers and penance in reparation for the sins of others, especially those motivated by racial hate.

Above all, the priest said, the current time is one for conversion, and a recognition that we as a society cannot separate ourselves from God and build a perfect utopia.

“We pray for peace and for the end of hatred, but, as I mentioned before, the most important thing is rejecting the godlessness of our own self reliance and learning to depend more on Jesus alone as the salvation of man,” he said.

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