The Gates of Hell Will Not Prevail Against You: Mental Health, Medication, Healing, and Holy Week

One of the most liberating teachings of our Catholic faith is the idea that suffering–though undesirable and not part of God’s original plan–is an inescapable part of living in a fallen world.  

That might not sound terrifically liberating on the face of it.  Who wants to suffer?  No one, of course.  But although life is filled with trials and problems, much of the suffering we endure is brought on by the idea that suffering itself means that there is something wrong with us.  As a culture, we have been led to believe that the greatest good is a stress free, problem-free,  perfectly healthy, blissfully happy life.  In light of this over-riding sense that the only life worth celebrating–much less living–is the perfectly contented life, even those of us who are hip to the secret that (as Scott Peck once shocked people by saying) “Life is hard” are inclined to give into the temptation that every stressor, ache, or disappointment is just another unbearable catastrophe that must mean that our life is terribly, terribly, broken and there is something terribly, terribly wrong with us and/or our circumstances.

There’s a Pill for That–Or Is There? 

The psych med industry takes advantage of our cultural imperative to worship the modern idol of blissful living.  Having a bad week?  A bad day?  A bad moment?  Clearly, you must be broken!  Good news!  There’s a pill for that.  The problem is that, at their best, many psych meds only work for about 50% of the people who take them and only reduce symptoms by about 30% even when they work.  Likewise, according to a new study of 100,000 people, taking psych meds–especially benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium, Lunestra, and Ambien–doubles your risk of death when compared with the control group.  In the same study, the more drugs a person was on, the higher their morbidity. Apparently, much of the risk of death is accidental.  For instance, people on the above medications are 6 times more likely to be hospitalized for serious accidents, largely due to the drowsiness caused by these drugs.  You can read more here.

Not Making Light of Pain

I want to be clear.  I am NOT making light of anyone’s  very real pain–emotional or otherwise.  Life truly is hard.  Some things are truly unbearably hard.  We can’t pretend otherwise and we shouldn’t try.  Despite their very real limitations, medication can be truly necessary for some people.  If you are taking psychiatric medications, please do not make any changes based solely on this blog post.   Regardless,  recognizing that life can be genuinely difficult  doesn’t change the fact that the biggest factor turning common hardship into actual  suffering is the sense that there is something terribly, terribly wrong with me that my life is positively  filled with things I don’t like to do, emotions I’d rather not have, and moments I’d rather not have to endure.   And this is where having a Christian notion of suffering can be liberating.

As Christians, we recognize that suffering–while not desirable–is normal.  Hardship is status quo in a fallen world.  Having a tough day?  Welcome to the fallen, human race.  No matter how many pills you take, you will not be able to wipe away the wages of Original Sin.   And thanks to the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  That’s OK.   Life is hard, but hardship is not a catastrophe.  We can accomplish all things through Christ who is our strength.

So what do we do about it?  Perhaps a story could illustrate what I recommend.

De-Catastrophizing Your Life

I was speaking with a client a few weeks ago (the details of the case have been changed significantly to protect confidentiality).  This client hates paperwork but she is in an administrative position that requires regular filing of various, important forms that demonstrate her company’s compliance with federal regulations.  It happened that the day before our session, a particular project required an unusual amount of detailed paperwork and there were potentially serious, legal and professional consequences if she didn’t fill everything out properly.  It wasn’t anything she hadn’t done before but, as you might imagine, she hated being in that position.   Filling out pages of detailed, government paperwork with the risk of fines, firing, or in the extreme, jail time, hanging over your head is no one’s idea of a good day.   Unfortunately, the stress of it all got to her so much she had a panic attack.  She ended up taking an extra Klonopin and placing an emergency phone call to her general practitioner, speaking with him for about 30 minutes in the middle of the day, before she could calm down again.

We talked through her experience.  I asked her to tell me about the level of anxiety she felt that day.  She explained that while it was difficult, in retrospect, she felt that the level of anxiety she experienced was not near the level of anxiety she encountered when she had first begun our therapy.  I acknowledged that she had worked hard in her treatment had made a lot of progress and had a great deal to be proud of.  I then told her that I would never want her to have to endure unbearable anxiety and I was glad the she took active steps to try to manage the pain she was in.  But I  asked her to reflect on her most recent panic attack  in light of her observation that she had been through much worse anxiety and survived it with even fewer resources than she had now.  I asked her to consider what level of anxiety she felt she could tolerate without it becoming a catastrophe for her  and I asked if the amount of anxiety she experienced during her last panic attack would be within that range.  She admitted that it would probably be pushing the limits of her tolerance level,  but that she could imagine that even that level of anxiety didn’t have to be a catastrophe.    I then asked her, if she had to do it again, could she imagine getting through it without having to take the extra Klonopin or calling her physician?  If she could, what would she do instead?  Would it be possible to manage that level stress without the medication or the call for help to an  irritable doc who didn’t really do much for her when it came right down to it?

She agreed that it probably would and we talked about some of the strategies that she had used in the past to deal with even more intense anxiety.  She shared that another round of paperwork like that which she had just completed was coming up in the next week.  She was already feeling anxious about it.  We talked through how she could use the strategies we had just identified to both try to take down the level of anxiety she was encountering, but also how she could remind herself that the mere fact of her anxiety was not, in itself, a catastrophe.  It was uncomfortable.  It was unpleasant.  It was damned frustrating and even upsetting.  But it was not a catastrophe that necessarily required extra medication or an emergency phone calls to her physician.  A catastrophe puts you in danger.  It threatens your health.  It leaves lasting damage in its wake.   In spite of the panic, she was, in fact, safe.  In spite of feeling awful, she was, in fact, healthy.  And in spite of being horribly pressured, it would, in fact, pass.

Again, I said that I would never want her to just force herself through an experience of anxiety to the degree that she felt completely drained, depleted and defeated.  In light of that, I asked her to tell me how she would feel about herself if, God forbid, she experienced that level of anxiety again but chose not to take the extra Klonopin or call her doctor and instead, use the strategies that had helped her in her ongoing battle against anxiety thus far.  She said she thought she would feel a sense of pride that she hadn’t let her anxiety beat her.  She explained that, while it would be hard, she would feel like she was making progress and growing in strengths that would serve her well in future, stressful situations.  She seemed pleased with this realization about herself.

She ended the session feeling much more confident about the week ahead, having both tools to decrease her experience of anxiety and the knowledge that, even on the odd chance that those tools wouldn’t work for some reason, she had the strength and wherewithal to stand up to the anxiety without letting it become a catastrophe.  She wasn’t yet cured of her anxiety, but she could still  be confident in the face of it.

The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail Against You

What’s the point?  In this Easter week, perhaps we could all take a moment to look at the things we catastrophize in our lives, the tendency we all  have to take our hardships and tell ourselves that the mere fact that these hardships exist means that there is something terribly, awfully wrong with us and the lives we live.  Perhaps we could try just a little harder to resist the temptation to necessarily turn the difficulties of our fallen life into diseases with letters and a pill.  We all do it.  Life truly is hard.  But do we need to make a catastrophe of our hardships?

What if, for a moment, we all remembered that the same God who conquered even death is on our side?  If that God is for us, then who or what could stand against us (Rom 8:31)?  If we are his Church, against whom even the gates of hell cannot stand (Matt 16:18), do we really need to allow ourselves to be so traumatized by that unfortunate experience, that undesirable emotion, that disappointing encounter?

No one should deny their pain or ever feel pressured to pretend to feel better than they do.  But maybe, by allowing ourselves to reflect on the power of the resurrection in our own lives, we could bear  a few more of our hardships bravely, seeing them as an opportunity to grow in strength, virtue, and wholeness, instead turning each setback, disappointment or negative emotion into a catastrophe,  at worst, to be terrified by, and at best,  be reluctantly, grudgingly endured.

St Paul reminds us that, with Christ, we can be more than overcomers (Rom 8:31).  Perhaps, as we head into this week celebrating Christ’s victory over death itself, we could allow ourselves to remember that we too  are partakers in that victory and, as such, we truly have nothing to fear.

If you would like to learn more about conquering your anxiety and emotional difficulties, contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn more about our Catholic-integrated, tele-counseling practice.  Call 740-266-6461 or email to make an appointment.

About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.


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