Category: Orthodox Psychotherapy

made you flinch

by Andrea Elizabeth

Let’s say that traditional, non-modern psychology is right. What about post-traumatic stress? What if it is a lack of faith?

We adopted a dog from the animal shelter who is pretty skittish and seems excessively afraid of feet. I have ambivalent thoughts of, poor thing must have been kicked a lot, countered with hurt feelings of, can’t you tell that I’m not abusive? and wouldn’t do that? She was also incontinent indoors for a long time after we got her. Now she seems on a schedule where she is outside during her necessary times. She hasn’t messed up in a while. What if they kicked her when she was incontinent, and instead of humbly bending to their abusively enforced wishes, she got really good at dodging feet when she pee’d on the floor. That way she could have her cake and eat it too. What if it became a way to assert her dominance in the house?

Her feet dodging is now an irrational (to the current circumstances) self-defensive habit. If it becomes a priority to break this habit, the modern way is to desensitize her through exposure therapy where you have exercises to introduce a more positive experience with feet, such as one person cuddling her while another strokes her with their foot. A really agile person could do both.

My understanding of the Orthodox way for a person to overcome this on their own is to learn to anticipate the stress reaction that comes with the approaching foot, decide if the foot is to be avoided in a ‘my time has not yet come’, calm way, or decide to bear it in a ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do’ way. Panicky flight with passive-aggressive sabotaging revenge is counter-productive to advancing in theosis. There also needs to be the consideration that the foot may not be aimed at them. But how is one who is used to it being aimed at them to know that it isn’t, if it is coming towards them in a similar way? This is where faith comes in. I think you have to learn to be comfortable with doubt if it is not completely clear what the person’s intentions are. I will stay here until I know for sure. I hope that they don’t want to hurt me, but if they do, it’s their problem and God will take care of me. Or, if it’s my problem, and is it ever completely not in imperfect people? Lord help me repent.

Godly sorrow

by Andrea Elizabeth

Another thing mentioned was that the only justifiable cause for sorrow is sadness over one’s own sins. Seems like you can be sad for another’s sins too, but I bet it’s much harder to do that without selfish interest. Even being upset over injustice to another can get out of hand and be used to hurt an enemy or a rival.

Last of Chapter 2

by Andrea Elizabeth

The second chapter of Orthodox Interventions mainly talks about the Orthodox Fathers’ approach to depression and anxiety. Basically that they are from the devil and because of giving into temptation and lack of faith. I related more to the descriptions of anxiety than depression. I’ve said before that I don’t have the attention span to stay depressed. I still wish there was a more nuanced approach to this. There was one short paragraph that implies that there may be a difference between suffering and wrongful, Cain and Judas-like despairing depression/anxiety, but it is not spelled out.

“Pain, including depression, is therefore meant to yield blessing to him/her who endures it. Those who witness and note the manliness, courage, and victory with which suffering, pain, and depression are borne, are also blessed. Therefore, it is because of God’s love for wo/man that wo/man is called and/or permitted to suffer (Cavarnos, 1985).” pg 99

Jesus was called a man of sorrows, so…

But we do need to rally ourselves. Or rouse ourselves as the Lenten hymn, Behold the Bridegroom cometh at Midnight, says. And that takes faith and work and grace.

On depression and anxiety and coupling

by Andrea Elizabeth

“Even at prayer, the demons suggest an imaginary need or desire, a feeling of emptiness and/or sense of void for various unlawful things, in reality unattainable, and then stir up remembrance of these fantasies, inciting the nous to pursue them. When such fantasies are momentarily realized, the darkened psyche experiences a fleeting satisfaction, but when the psyche is faced with the transitory nature of these fantasies, it becomes depressed and miserable. Even when the nous is at prayer, the demons attempt to keep filling it with the thoughts of these things, in order to deceive the psyche into believing that fantasies will become permanent satisfactions, thereby destroying the fruitfulness of the nous‘ prayer (St. Evagrius the Solitary, 1981).

“[…] Long and excessive desire for any imaginary need or desire for the sensory brings sorrow to the heart and darkens and disturbs the nous. It banishes pure prayer and all tenderness from the psyche and brings a painful pining or longing in the heart. This leads to measureless hardness and insensibility, and for this reason the demons usually bring depression upon those who have undertaken to lead a spiritual life. For example, ascetics, who attempt to live an angelic life, i.e., a life on a higher plane, are particularly affected by such fantasies as the demons of depression and anxiety often attack them, implanting in their minds an idealized vision of the fulfillment and earthly bliss to be found in the communion with women and/or in the marital state, whe in reality, after the initial excitement of the passions passes, man is left to that which is described by the Holy Apostle Paul as anxiety for the things of this world and great distraction (see 1 Cor. 7) (St. Symeon the New Theologian, 1995).” (Orthodox Interventions, p. 94, 95)

The chapter then goes into what to do about the feelings. But I want to first think about the nature of this fantasy. I believe it is basically the desire to couple with someone or something. They talk about marriage, which is the ultimate permanent coupling, but it can also be the desire for friendship or other family relationships such as exist between a parent and child. Or a desire to possess or control people, animals, or things. The monastic seeks to forsake all these things in order to couple with God. His relationship with people and things thereafter is one of self-emptying, not coupling, except for the direction he gets from his spiritual father.

But what about those in the world? Depression and anxiety certainly affect them too, even if they are married and have best friends. Abuse and neglect were listed in passing earlier in this chapter as contributing factors, along with heredity and chemical imbalance, but the process of the contribution wasn’t mentioned, I suppose because the patristic literature doesn’t talk about it except as it is directed towards lust for women, though I know greed and avarice and gluttony are listed too. Still, there is something about sexual sin that hits us deeper. It is intimately involved with our bodies and our hearts. Food comes close to this relationship, which is why fasting is prescribed.

Romantic fantasies affect married people after a process of complaining about one’s spouse, I suppose. Perhaps one’s complaints are legitimate, which is where forgiveness and humility about one’s own faults fits in, if the spouse doesn’t cross certain lines. Thankfulness is often an antidote for complaining. But hopefully one can also communicate with one’s spouse about things that bother one.

People who marry obviously believe in coupling with another person, and have expectations about what that should be like. We can’t say that all expectations are fantasies. We should be treated and treat others well. The married person believes in two-way relationships, not just one-way kenosis. I suppose depression and anxiety can be symptoms of the line being crossed into fantasy. But what if proper expectations legitimately are not met? This is the case of abuse and neglect, or the death or serious illness of a loved one. I’ll speculate that the person involved in this legitimately disappointing coupling, whether it be between spouses, friends, parents and children, or other partnerships, has to learn to be a monastic. Still, I am thankful for this statement,

“But from depression, wo/man comes to know the fruits of the evil spirit of listlessness, impatience, anger, hatred, contentiousness, despair, sluggishness in praying, etc. (Macarius of Optina, 1995). This can be healed by prayer, hope in God, meditation on Holy Scripture, and living with godly people (St. John Cassian, 1997).” (p. 96)

Thanks for that last acknowledgment.

and sometimes through other people

by Andrea Elizabeth

After listing many benefits to invoking God’s name, Orthodox Interventions says this about the Jesus Prayer,

“The ‘Jesus Prayer’ is psychotherapy. As medicine, the ‘Jesus Prayer’ is destructive of passions and powerful in changing behavior (Bouton, 2004; DiLeo, 2007). Just as a doctor places a dressing on a patient’s wound, and the dressing works without the patient knowing or understanding how it works, calling on the name of Jesus ‘removes the passions’ in spite of wo/man’s inability to comprehend its power (Maloney, 2003). The holy name of Jesus when repeated quietly, penetrates the psyche like a drop of oil, spreading out and impregnating a cloth (Bouton, 2004; DiLeo, 2007).

“The modern translation of ‘mercy’ of the Greek word eleison is limited and insufficient. Eleison has the same root as elaion, which means ‘olive’ and/or ‘olive oil’. In the Middle East, olive oil is used to provide physical healing for many sicknesses, particularly respiratory (DiLeo, 2007). ‘Have mercy’ means to annoint the psyche with ‘healing oil’. The Holy Fathers teach that praying or invoking the name of Jesus changes personality (DiLeo, 2007). The ‘Jesus Prayer’ functions as therapy, much like healing oil, transforming the personality from overstrain to joy (see John 26:24). Through continued prayer, these changes become permanent.”

And then the thing that makes me want to give qualifiers:

[…] Just as a natural virtue that is aspired to can only be achieved by conducive means, so also this holy work requires some indispensable rudiments: (a) a degree of quiet; (b) freedom from cares; (c) avoidance of learning about and spreading news of things going on, or ‘giving and taking’ as the Holy Fathers put it; (d) self-discipline in all things; and (e) an overall silence which stems from these (Bouton, 2004; DiLeo, 2007; Maloney, 2003). This habit will not be unattainable for devout people who take an interest in this holy activity. The habit of a regular prayer time morning and evening, always about the same time, are a good beginning (Orthodox Christian Information Center, 2009a).” pg. 82-85.

Elsewhere Archimandrite Andrew (Vujisic) also stresses perseverance and commitment to the therapy. I will not argue with the priorities given here, but again, I have heard elsewhere that sometimes seeing a psychologist is necessary. I am not promoting secular psychologists, but I wish he would address more involved cases where there may be higher degrees of stress, disquiet, anxiety, and the felt inability to control onesself. Then someone may need help from another person if not her/his confessor, such as a friend or family member as well. Hopefully s/he has access to good counsel or someone qualified to help bear their burden. I feel the necessary relief most consistently when I tell my husband my troubles. The Archimandrite does however give this encouragement later on, “… the Holy Fathers also say that it lies with wo/man to seek and strive to enter the way which leads to the city; and if by chance s/he doesn’t arrive at the endpoint, not having kept pace or whatever reason, God will number him/her with those who finished (Bouton, 2004; DiLeo, 2007).



by Andrea Elizabeth

“The concept of hesychia [stillness] includes practices designed to focus the self entirely upon God.[…] The ideal practice of the ‘Jesus Prayer’ is much more than repetition of prayer (Maloney, 2003). It involves the practices of nepsis and ascesis. This could include, but is not limited to, prayer, fasting, the reading of Holy Scripture, Divine worship, participation in the Holy Mysteries, and the eschatological principles of the remembrance of death and the final judgment (Bouton, 2004).” From Orthodox Interventions, p. 81.

I can see how the above can be taken as monastic escapism. In reality, unless they are hermits, even monks have to focus on people sometimes. To me there is a simultaneous hierarchy. If one is properly ordered, all thoughts and actions involving other people are in submission to (and not monergistically controlled by) God. God is concerned with other people, so he wants a simultaneous focus. It is our interactions with other people that reflect our relationship to God. Other people are our testing ground. If one has learned to control their thoughts in their cell, what happens when they encounter another person? Are they tempted by their beauty? Are they provoked to anger or envy? If so, then they are not strong enough. Focus that can only exist in isolation isn’t good enough, I’m thinking.

Dealing with people is very complicated. Discerning one’s thoughts when with them, or as a result of being with them, takes great concentration. People can help us see how deluded we are about ourselves and our prayer life. If they aren’t convinced of our spirituality, then maybe we’re not as spiritual as we think we are. Most people believe themselves to be persecuted if they aren’t held up as spiritually directed. This could be true, but I think the odds are that we minimize our own sins and overly aggrandize our rightness. Feedback from other people can be helpful. Unless they are trying to ingratiate themselves or are co-dependent with our self-delusion. If one prays for humility and to be made truly right, then I think God uses other people to bring that about. Of course private study and prayer are also involved, but even then, I feel like I need to get my relationships right and to pray more for those God has entrusted to me, than to privately levitate and glow right now. Stillness in relating to others is what I’m working on, but it involves putting God first in the relationship.

The fundamental difference

by Andrea Elizabeth

from Orthodox Interventions by Archimandrite Andrew (Vujisic)

“it should be noted that many reputable contemporary mental health workers and theoreticians view sin as an essential factor in psychological disorders and pathologies, and believe that secular psychology and ideology have dismissed sin as a part of the disease process (Bouton, 2004, Hodges 1987). In modern western culture, labeling actions as sinful is politically incorrect (Bouton 2004). Secular thought has replaced sin with lists of psychological illnesses (Bouton, 2004; Dileo, 2007). For example, self-esteem replaces sinful pride, victim-hood replaces envy, being disadvantaged replaces being greedy, etc. (Backus, 2000).” [pg 62]

Perhaps “sin” has been replaced because its western Calvinistic, totally depraved context causes psychological damage. If sin is “missing the mark” as it is in the east, or “incorrectness”, or “unhealthiness”, we can bring it back into the discussion. Still, I wonder if there is more to be understood about objective cause and effect of external stressors, such as results in post traumatic stress, for example. To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There is a grieving process, necessary self-defense, and appropriate emotional expressions of pain. It becomes incorrect or sinful if one moves too far toward, or gets stuck in the above list. Additionally, certain types of traumas occurring during certain age groups predispose one to stumble later on in specific ways, which is what I think the Scripture saying Woe unto those who cause these little ones to stumble, means. There is a certain victim syndrome that occurs. Victims probably do consent to envy, over-indulgence in comfort measures and escapism, self-pity, entitlement, and revenge-seeking. And western psychology does have certain corrections for these. I think it’s nice that they validate the pain that they went through and say it wasn’t all their fault, because victims also have a problem with taking too much responsibility for what happened and blaming themselves.

I have heard a few Orthodox teachers talk about the need for some people to see western psychologists. Maybe if there was more of an integration in understanding the Church wouldn’t need to do that as much, because Orthodoxy does have the remedy.


To feel or not to feel

by Andrea Elizabeth

More bridges in Orthodox Interventions:

“The emphasis on thinking, however, should not obscure the importance of the emotional reactions that are generally the immediate source of distress (Bouton 2004). It simply means that emotions are addressed through cognitions. By correcting erroneous beliefs, excessive, inappropriate emotional reactions can be altered (Beck, 1976).”

What I haven’t really heard from the official Orthodox yet is what role abuse plays. This comes close,

“Another external stimulus that tempts wo/man to undesirable and sinful behavior/conduct, and that subsequently leads to spiritual, behavioral, and psychological disorders and pathologies, is identified by the Holy Fathers as unexpected or traumatic events and/or misfortunes (Bouton, 2004; DiLeo, 2007). These events serve only as stimuli and are not the cause of any particular behavior/conduct (Bouton, 2004). However, an unanticipated or traumatic event or misfortune, calamity, or hardship significantly disturbs/disrupts attentiveness/focus (Bouton 2004). By dislodging the nous from its concentration on virtue, it is diverted towards sin and internal strife (Bouton, 2004; DiLeo, 2007). The cause of this overthrow is the lack of attention to the attacks of the adversary (St. Maximus the Confessor 1985; St. Nikodemos & St. Makarios, 1983).

I wonder how much of an individual’s “breaking point” is under his or her control. Variables could include pain tolerance, education, maturity, and accessibility to Orthodox helps.

response to narcissism

by Andrea Elizabeth

This article which I got from Facebook on triggers to emotional responses leaves me with questions about narcissists.

Are they consciously trying to disrupt people? That would be terrorism.

How do terrorists justify their actions? They dehumanize their targets and think they deserve it more than they do.

Are we all narcissists? To the extent we think we are holier than others, I suppose so.

Am I holier than narcissists? If so, by grace that I synergistically cooperate with, but the prayers before communion don’t really let me think that.

But the article does have good advice about controlling one’s thoughts and reactions. I just wish they didn’t dehumanize the narcissists in the process.

This is the type of thing I’m looking for

by Andrea Elizabeth

from Chapter 2 of Orthodox Interventions, foot-noted earlier:

“According to the Holy Fathers, the etiology of spiritual, behavioral, developmental, and psychological disorders and pathologies are organized into categories: (a) external stimuli, i.e., those that originate outside of the individual; and (b) internal stimuli, i.e., those that the individual engenders within him/herself (Bouton, 2004; Scupoli, 1987). The Holy Fathers attribute external stimuli to demonic powers….

The Holy Fathers teach that, except in cases of demonic possession, demons do not cause behavior/conduct but rather act/operate as stimuli or temptations (Bouton, 2004; DiLeo, 2007). It is through ‘thoughts’ or ‘logismoi’ that evil spirits wage war against the psyche (St. Maximus the Confessor, 1985; St. Nikodemos & St. Makarios, 1983).

And the bridge to western psychology:

“The principle of guarding the thoughts and self-talk or ‘soul chatter’ proposed by the Holy Fathers is similar to those proposed by cognitive psychology (Bouton, 2004). ‘Self-talk’, ‘self-demands’, ‘internal scripts’, ‘faulty thinking’, etc. refer to the same cognitive concept of paying attention to internal self-talk and thoughts (Bouton, 2004; DiLeo, 2007; McMullin, 2000).