If there is one thing that my experiences working in the “conventional” system of counselling has taught me, it is that something is missing. Despite the abundance of research available on the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Dialectic Behaviour Therapy, and other ever-evolving therapies, my experience has found that the gains made in current therapy trends are often short lived or, simply, “falling short”. Period.
So often during my encounters with clients, I have longed to direct them to examine their spiritual self, you know, the part that provides us with a sense of purpose, meaning and direction. But I felt constricted by the prevailing societal attitude that there is no room for spirituality in mental health.
My own personal experience says “not so!” As a practitioner of all these vogue therapies, I have applied the touted techniques and strategies to my own difficulties. On their own, they are not enough. They can never be enough.
Let’s look at two current conventional therapies and enhance them with wisdom that has been long established in Christian teaching and tradition.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
- Based on the cognitive model of mental illness developed by Aaron Beck in 1964, which posits that emotions and behaviours are influenced by our interpretations of events.
- Based on 3 levels of cognition: core beliefs, dysfunctional assumptions and automatic thoughts.
- Focus is problem oriented, working in the “here and now”, offering relief through problem solving of current struggles as opposed to dwelling on or analyzing the past.
- Seeks to help the individual to better understand current difficulties through self-analysis of reactions, behaviours and moods.
Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola
One Christian approach to cognitive difficulties that enhances the basic components of CBT is the well known Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.
St. Ignatius created his exercises based on using the mind, will and imagination. Working through the spiritual exercises, an individual not only experiences a deeper understanding of God and His will for them, but also discovers a road map “ for becoming aware and understanding to some extent the different movements which are caused in the soul, the good, to receive them, and the bad to reject them” (St. Ignatius).
Three basic terminologies found in St. Ignatius’ “rules”, BE AWARE, UNDERSTAND, TAKE ACTION, parallel the guiding principles of CBT.
Dialectic Behaviour Therapy (DBT)
Core Components aim to develop 4 skills:
2) Distress Tolerance
3) Interpersonal Effectiveness
4) Emotion Regulation
Church history provides us with numerous inspiring examples of holy men and women who overcame serious mental illness. Many of these saints went on to develop theories, doctrines and writings that formed the backbone of Christian teaching that, although written centuries ago, continue to help people overcome life difficulties to this day. In fact, their work is essentially the backbone of modern approaches, like CBT and DBT, that are so popular today. I include some of these examples below:
St. Louis Martin: At midlife, experienced signs of dementia, obsessive compulsive disorders, fear, anxiety and depression.
His daughter, St. Therese of Lisieux, “understood that her mental health challenges did not define her deepest self. Clinging stubbornly to her identification as a child of God, created in God’s own divine image, helped to increase her capacity for resiliency, even as she lived with often serious mental health challenges”. (https://emmaussupport.ca/2022/03/29/the-saints-and-mental-health-st-louis-martin-and-st-therese-of-lisieux/)