Last week Hallowood Institute presented a seminar titled, Fostering Healing in a Stressful World: A Clinical Exploration of Stress, Love and Attachment.  Dr. Eleonora Bartoli looked carefully at the stress responses of our bodies that trigger fight, flight, and freeze responses.  She noted that these responses are involuntary and physical, not mental choices.  Given the stress-filled nature of our current lives in a global pandemic, many of us related to her points about feeling stuck in a survival response that cuts us off from thriving.  We’ve heard much about creating safety for ourselves and others in these challenging moments, but there’s more than safety that’s needed.  When in survival mode, our brains don’t access higher thinking skills or empathy. We need to connect with others in order to be truly well and safety is only a step toward this goal.  Particularly in these days where so many of us feel estranged from others and our national conversations are filled with division and polarization, feelings well up and we often feel frozen, stuck, even paralyzed. These are trauma responses.  Helplessness may be the most difficult emotion for humans to endure and it’s this emotion that is so prevalent today.

So what can we do?  We need to use our bodies as well as our minds to repair what’s been injured within us.  We need to move (our body’s best de-stressor) and we need to activate the resources of healing that are natural to our systems.  These healing agents within our bodies are activated by connecting with other and feeling attached in healthy ways. Conscious and consistent care for one another is vital to our wellbeing and helps activate healing chemistry within our bodies.  Call a friend when you’re done reading this short article.

For Christian therapists interested in integrating Christian spirituality into our work with clients, these ideas present helpful information to pass along to clients and to put into practice ourselves.  One implication of the way our brains work is that we were designed for connection with God and with others and ourselves.  Keeping spiritual routines that help us connect and reflect are powerful aids in allowing our bodies to repair and renew wellness across our systems.  We need to be careful to turn away from ignoring our bodies as somehow “lesser” than our minds in our quest for deeper spirituality.

Remnants of gnostic thoughts seem to continue to pop up in sermons and in Bible interpretations.  We are not separate from our bodies.  We are created beings, embodied by God’s design.  Let’s allow our spiritual practice to include body work, noting what we feel, where we feel it and how we can meet God here and now in the context of our genuine feelings.  As we enter the Christmas season, we remember that God became incarnate.  That is to say, God stepped into a body like ours, in order to redeem us through and through.  The need to attach to a Loving Other is central to the gospel story for humans.  Helplessness, although difficult to endure, is not foreign to our God who came as a tiny baby ready to meet us in our need.

Christmas Message 2019

Many people speak of depression at Christmas. They feel a loss of relationship often, but especially when the whole world seems intent on buying the perfect gift, making the perfect meal, having the warmest gathering with friends and family.  As a psychologist, I try to help these dear people sort out many feelings, thoughts and behaviors that exacerbate their isolation and contribute to the hopelessness that lies at the heart of depression.  There’s something about naming all of that that brings some relief. But in the end, my integrationist heart (at the intersection of psychology and Christian spirituality) tells me that spiritual contact is needed.  It’s no good to preach this to someone who is suffering, rather it is important to be present with them in the suffering.  To be with, that is genuinely present to, the sufferer is everything, just as God chose to be with humanity, with us as a vulnerable babe. To shed the depressing corrupt consumerist version of Christmas that our culture offers us might seem overwhelming, but as the day of Jesus’ birth draws near this year, I feel it’s necessity.  There’s no perfect Christmas that you or I will miss this year.  There’s no gift or moment or gathering to find or create.  There’s only the embrace of our own dreads which reveal our deep need for love that in the light of the manager is revealed as space for God to come close.  God present to each of us —  this God who comes as a Baby offering relationship rather than power, openness rather than conduct codes, hope that isn’t bound to our logic. This Light is still overcoming the darkness.

Look for another Hallowood Institute Seminar in Spring 2020!


When I’m sitting with people in my office listening as they describe their struggles, particularly with God, I’m often struck with the notion that how they view God and how they view themselves in relationship with God makes a big difference in how they are going to be able to overcome obstacles to their growth. Those who perceive God as loving seem far more able to access the psychological benefits that research associates with prayer practices than those who view God as distant or cold. My work is often to explore the dissonance between their thoughts about God and their experiences with God. We look at how their current experiences in prayer might actually make them more anxious. When they can name that, they seem to be able to more honestly approach God in prayer and often times report more benefits from praying than they knew before. If they can continue to pray, but begin to do so authentically, the benefits multiply.

When I discuss cases like this with colleagues who do not believe, the criticism frequently centers on prayer as a simple distraction. They argue that my clients may feel better, but that can be explained simply as a function of diversion. Praying shifts the clients’ attention off their problems which could mean that the client is ill-served because they do not address needed issues. But behavioral science experiments suggest that prayer actually helps people with focus. (see the abstract here: In one experiment participants were allowed to pray about an issue in their lives and then asked to perform a task. For participants who scored highly on a measure of religiosity, their subsequent task performance improved. In as second experiment praying about a problem biased attention in the subsequent word-search task. So praying about a problem for people who were likely to engage in religious behavior, seemed to free cognitive resources which likely would have been consumed by worry so they were better able to manage new data and attend to “problem-relevant information.” It seems for believers, prayer really helps.

So don’t stop praying, but do let yourself experiment with very honest prayer that engages the depth of your emotions as they are not as you wish they were.


There’s been a loud reaction against political leaders who say they are sending prayers for victims of violence and their families in recent news reports. It’s unfortunate that this has become a clique. Praying should never be confused with doing nothing, but in our fractious society it’s now associated with a lack of effective action and even with a lack of real care. Nothing is farther from the truth.

The Pew Research Center has identified the large number of Americans who pray regularly ( Many clients who seek psychotherapy come with a Christian perspective and struggle to relate the strengths of their faith tradition to their everyday problems. When the public discourse is so divided and the political right claims Christian perspectives while defending inaction against violence like school shootings in the name of freedom, it is a psychological crisis as well as a civil tragedy. For psychotherapists such national events and discord come directly into treatment sessions and conversations about anxiety and stress increase. To frustrate matters, when prayer is bantered about as a glib clique, a source of help is weakened. Neurologically prayer has proven benefits so don’t stop praying. Don’t stifle your desire to find a faithful path through a troubling world. There’s still ample reason to hope through difficult emotional days. Take all the trouble into your conversation with God and with your therapist. Honest engagement with doubt, anger, and fear can lead to unexpected relief and to greater understanding in spite of the false doctrines spread through our current political dialogue. In tragedy, we pray because we seek needed comfort. It comes in surprising ways. Prayer isn’t a release from taking action; it is path to it. Light dawns.

Follow our Page here on Facebook. Connect with us and the wider community of like-minded professionals in mental health and wellness. There has never been a better time to engage this topic than in the anxiety- and depression-laden world of today!


Psychotherapy was labeled as the “talking cure” decades ago. When we consider how contemplative prayer practice might impact our mental health, it’s worth pondering the good that naming and expressing emotion can bring.  In contemplative prayer, we are invited to notice our distressing thoughts and to gently turn away from them and focus our attention on the present moment by sensing our breath going in and out, remembering a prayer word that expresses love and grace in the now.  These are ancient Christian practices designed to help our brains change patterns. The naming of our fears and then gently turning from them is a good work out for our minds. I go so far as calling it, “fighting the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12).

I think of these practices as a conversation with myself and with God. In an activity-oriented time like ours, the complaint I hear is that this sort of prayer feels like ‘doing nothing.’ On the contrary, I think it is very important work of the first order. In noticing and turning over these troubling emotions we are doing something vital. We are discharging stress that if retained can cause aggressive reactions towards others when we least expect them or perhaps never allow ourselves to see them.  Often psychological distress is the result of emotions that are stuck in us and thereby left unprocessed. Feelings don’t overwhelm us in an ongoing fashion near as much as attempting to not feel them does. In contemplative prayer, the psyche can process and integrate warded off emotions that could be making us deeply anxious. The prayer practice may even allow more of the unconscious residual emotion to surface and to be named and turned over – again and again, until the mind is able to digest and order these past emotions and experiences. To keep them in the past, so to speak. We internally release the stress, more consciously giving it to God and allowing our mind to release the chemical wash that goes with our distress.


In early psychology, Freud famously labeled parts of the mind as: id, ego and superego. Freud was so influential that these terms have become part of our everyday vocabulary, particularly the term, ego. For Freud the ego was the mediator between the id and superego, between our biological drives and our sense of social appropriateness. Conflicts between our instinctual drives and what we deem appropriate in our relational context are at the heart of a psychoanalytic explanation of much mental illness or distress. In our current culture the solution to this focuses on eliminating the prohibitions to the satisfaction of the id (our impulsive desires). Traditional spiritual practice recommends the opposite cure in eliminating the demands of the id. So clients could be helped by rationally disputing the overly restrictive messages of the superego and thereby allowing them to be free to ‘be themselves’ or conversely, clients are helped by rationally disputing the possibly self-destructive demands of the id. I’d argue with many practitioners of contemplative prayer that we need a third way.

We’ve learned over the years of psychological consideration and research that defensive processes in the human mind tend to coalesce into patterns that repeat and it is these rigid habits of thinking, feeling and behaving that ultimately bring distress. We shape our interpretations of current events based on our biases begun in early life experiences which may no longer be relevant. Our hope of change lies in modifying these defensive patterns in our minds rather than in the daunting (impossible?) task of eliminating id or superego demands. Contemplative prayer practices, often based in ancient spiritual guides, turn out to be excellent treatment options to bring about these changes. When we sit in meditation much that we encounter within our unquiet minds is the demands of id and superego. We come face-to-face with our tendency to identity ourselves with our egoic consciousness, that is, with the surface layers we created (the metaphor of a mask is apt here) to shield us from our rigid unconscious ways of warding off deep fears and anxieties connected to our instinctive desires (id) and how to manage them. We don’t have to choose to act on these impulses or to repress them, but instead in the contemplative practice we have opportunity to simply notice them and turn our attention back to the present moment and the love that is available here and now. This practice strengthens new neural pathways that are less anxiety-driven. More to come on this process in coming weeks.

Follow our Page here on Facebook. Connect with us and the wider community of like-minded professionals in mental health and wellness. There has never been a better time to engage this topic than in the anxiety- and depression-laden world of today!


I was sitting with my spiritual director this week, trying to identify the disquiet I was feeling. As we talked, I became aware of hidden fears that can cause me to act often in more driven ways than I’d like.  It slowly emerged in our conversation that these fears had more to do with the past than the present and I found myself considering again how I experience grace in waves rather than as a constant state. I need grace to repeat. It’s not enough to know I can be free once or twice or a thousand times. I need a present touch.

This reminded me again of the process of transformation that goes on for humans all through our lives. This is a spiritual and neurological truth. We need things to repeat. We may (and should!) identify patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that were rooted in us as defensive processes to help us manage frightening or painful experiences in our early lives, but insight doesn’t change us.  Instead we need to have repeating experiences that we can consciously embrace of different conclusions (thoughts) than we had as children and different feelings (fear that is NOT debilitating or joy!) and different behaviors (adapted to the reality of the moment). We need to become awake to these new possibilities. Good therapy can help with this and so can attuned spiritual direction.

In our ongoing discussion here of the small self and Christianity’s invitation to the transformation of it through contemplative surrender, I’m reminded that we all need repeating grace.  We too often expect ourselves to change quickly or finally with a new lesson, but are disappointment to find old feelings returning. Our brains go back to their old ways. We need not despair over this, but can lean into the teachings of Jesus and his many followers over the centuries. When disquieted we can listen carefully to the inner dissonance and discover grace again wooing us away from old impulses designed to save ourselves and inviting us into the present moment where our faith teaches us that we are already saved. We confront fear and turn our attention to trust that love will triumph even through dark times. We can live into the Psalmist’s joy from Psalm 23: “Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life…” (NLT) Grace repeats and we need to come back again and again to letting the riches of God impact us in the present moment.


I’d like to continue considering the concept of the ‘small self.’ In psychology which has been borrowing from Buddhism since the Mindfulness movement began, the small self is the ‘I’ you identify and talk about with others. It’s your identity or the thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and positions you hold that contribute to your sense of self as separate or unique from others around you. In Buddhism the main point is to escape the small self and so to realize that you are one with the universal. Christian thought takes us in a different direction. Rather than escaping the self, Christian spirituality advocates for a surrender of the self to God and leads away from a blending with the universe and instead identifies a unique personal relationship that God and the individual can enjoy. This is a defining element of Christianity. The small self can be small and noticed and loved. Experiences of awe that leave us feeling small can be healing. Mystical experiences that focus on the present moment as the Mindfulness movement has popularized, can also bring us to an acceptance of self as small and cherished without the need for inflating self regard. This distinctive teaching of Jesus is the foundation of Christian contemplative practice and can offer deep psychological and emotional healing.

Neuroscience has taught us that our brains use memory-based information far more than we realize. We predict what will happen in the future by what we have learned in the past. This means we can remain mired in old experience rather than taking in new experience. Research suggests that 80 percent or more of what we perceive is based in this memory-based view of self, or the small self, rather than in current information coming in through our eyes and ears. So the small self can constrain our ability to respond freely and authentically in the moment. We’re too busy feeling old fears and defending against them. The Mindfulness movement in psychology based in Buddhist philosophy would say we need to learn to escape the small self. I would suggest that Christian practice can help us transform the small self, redeem the true self that is hidden within. We’ll keep exploring this together in the coming weeks.

Follow our Page here on Facebook. Connect with us and the wider community of like-minded professionals in mental health and wellness. There has never been a better time to engage this topic than in the anxiety- and depression-laden world of today!


I’m attending the Christian Association for Psychological Studies ( Annual Conference and heard Dr. Richard Beck present on Self-esteem in a wonderful exploration of the hidden costs of our preoccupation with this topic. We all are caught in a cycle of self-evaluation that either boosts our self-esteem or diminishes it.  Trying to keep a balance of just the right amount of self-esteem is an on-going tension happening within us all the time. Too much self-esteem leads to a self-absorption that makes us off-putting to others and too little lands us in pre-occupied worry, self-loathing or a social paralysis. Added to all that either too much or too little self-esteem can keep us trapped in a fixation on other’s perceptions of us. Beck refers to this as a Goldilock’s dilemma.  It’s no fun.


Psychotherapy has focused for several decades on attempting to boost our self-esteem. We try to talk clients into feeling better (processes of the mid-brain or Limbic system) by assailing their frontal lobes (the cerebral cortex or the wrong target in our brain) with affirmations and soothing reframes.  This doesn’t address the actual problem of our struggling selves, trying to get this teetering balance of self-esteem just right moment to moment. We so desire to feel OK!


Beck suggests that we consider a different focus, based not in the teeter-toter of self-esteem, but in transcendence of self.  Our desire needs a new direction. The practice of contemplation is a good place to practice allowing our minds to quiet so that we find a “quiet ego” or a “small self” (  that discovers a new kind of connection to others that isn’t dominated by pleasing the other or ruled over by pleasing the false self. Researchers have connected this refocusing to the experience of awe with the result in humans of an increase in prosocial behavior.  We find space to feel small when we look at the expanse of night sky or in religious epiphanies and mystical experience. Science points us back to the healthy practice of spirituality.


More to come on the small self and guidance for our growth related to our desires and the freedom of spiritual practices.