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  • Writer's pictureSacred Heart Mental Wellness

Help for the Anxious: How to make it Through the Struggle, Part 1

Video Interview with Women of Grace

Airdate 7/6/2022

Johnnette: Hello everyone and welcome to women of grace, I'm Johnnette Williams. Have you ever been anxious, worried, or fearful? I'm rather certain you've experienced at least one moment when the emotion and anxiety threatened to take control. As the flood of emotions swept over you what was happening to you physically? What thoughts tumbled through your mind? Why was the emotion so intense? Why was it so difficult to quell it, and is there a way to regain control should it happen again? These are the questions our guest will answer for us today. It's part one of Help for the Anxious: How to make it Through the Struggle.


Johnnette: I remember the overwhelming fear I experienced for the safety of my daughter shortly after my son's death. If I heard a police or ambulance siren, a helicopter overhead, or the screeching sound of tires as a car made a sudden stop my heart would start to pound, my stomach would do summersaults, my blood pressure would rise and worrisome thoughts would flood my mind. Panic ensued. To be sure the loss of a child is horrific but why does seemingly uncontrollable panic-stricken response?

Our guest today knows and she is going to lay bare the reality of such an experience. Lets welcome Catherine DiNuzzo, a licensed professional counselor in private practice who also operates Sacred Heart Mental Wellness. She received her master's degree in counseling and human services from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and has packaged advice and counsel for the anxious in this book The Catholic Guide Through Anxiety available for you at EWTN Religious Catalogue. Just go to to order. Now let's welcome Catherine DiNuzzo.

Catherine welcome to Women of Grace.

Catherine: Thank you so much for having me, I'm so excited.

Johnnette: Well I am glad you are excited because I am excited too. And this is a very very important topic that we are going to be discussing. You know we were chatting for just a few. moments before the show, and I said you know people have always experienced anxiety or worry but today it just seems to be heightened to such a level and such a degree and so many individuals are presented with this seemingly uncontrollable aspect of their lives.

Catherine: Yea and I think it is important to know that even, whatever way the pandemic affected you the fact is that one day you woke up and everything you knew had changed. So there's a part of our brain that keeps us alive, I call it your animal brain it's technically called your limbic system, but it regulates all of our emotions and it likes consistency. And one day everything changed. The cereal I always bought wasn't available, and I couldn't have Sunday night dinner at my family's house so even if you weren't afraid of the actual pandemic or you weathered it well there were still a lot of things that changed and I think that we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, and we made it through and now everyone is tired, and their brains are going agh what's next? I think it's a big reason why we're seeing so many of those anxious feelings coming because what we thought was really safe and comfortable we learned can change really quickly.

Johnnette: Yeah I think about the people in Ukraine, you know when I was reading that part of your book and you were making reference to the pandemic, which I was so glad that you did because a lot of people begin to question themselves in situations like that. I was thinking about all of those individuals who had to flee their homes with a suitcase or a duffle bag filled with anything they could put in there and everything was upended. And we as human persons are very resilient but that doesn't mean that we don't experience things on a deep level and that sometimes yeah we can get it through, but after we get it through that's when everything begins to kinda unravel for us.

Catherine: Exactly because we have that fight, flight, or freeze response, that animal part of our brain that's like, "it's a bear, it's dangerous we have to protect ourselves!" But in the sake of a bear, or the pandemic, or a war that's super important but our brains are only meant to stay there for a short period of time to be in that alert and so really what we're seeing now is just that people are exhausted. I tell my clients sometimes that I'm about to bust the straps of my bootstraps like if I pull them up one more time there's just not going to be anything left and so we really have to understand how our brains work to help us understand anxiety, to understand those feelings to know how to treat them.

Johnnette: Yea and that's very important so why don't you tell us a little about the brain which I think is you know just an absolutely fascinating topic in and of itself.

Catherine: Yea I always tease that you can't not be Catholic the more you learn about the brain because it's so amazing, like how could this not be God in his beautiful creation? And so when we talk about anxiety we talk about two main parts of the brain. So the one is your frontal cortex, which is right here, this is the thinking part of your brain, your decision-making. We have cognitive control over the brain. And then the other part is your animal brain or your limbic system which I kinda use this as an example, and I've bought the expensive brains but I like this better because it moves (insert laughter) so this is the frontal part of your brain where you make decisions, and then this is your spinal cord and straight at the top of your cord is your limbic system and so what happens is that when I sense something we think that our senses that I see and taste and hear, we actually don't all of those senses just sense. They send it through the spinal cord, the spinal cord goes to the animal brain and the animal brain says is this safe or is it dangerous? And if its dangerous it sends out an alert to your body right away, "there's a bear, there's a bear!" Right, I can smell it, I can see the teeth, I can hear the roar. We're gonna pump adrenaline, and we're gonna start preparing you to fight, flight or freeze. But if the animal brain senses something calm it might say you know, "Oh I can feel pain in my fingers, I can see that we're boiling a pot of water and now my hand hurts." Then it goes up to my cognitive part, my decision-making part of my brain and it says, "hey move your hand." And I move my hand and then I keep moving. And so we call that kind of those neuropathways and how our brain processes things. But when traumatic events happen, when life changes, when something scary happens our brain goes, "hmm, I don't ever want to be surprised again." Right, so very similar to the story you shared about your son, that was a moment where your animal brain probably never hear sirens before, never really thought about it and now it's like I'm never gonna miss that ever again so it imprints that picture so now anytime it's like I'm sending out the fight, flight, or freeze, even if everybody is okay. And where people struggle so much is they think well okay, I heard Catherine tell me all about this so I'm just gonna stop it. I'm gonna tell my animal brain it's fine. But does that work?

Johnnette: Oh no, it didn't work for me.

Catherine: It doesn't work (insert laughter) it doesn't work, right? And it's because our animal brain is responsive. It responds to the senses, it's not cognitive. So one of the things I always, if I'm doing a talk in front of people, the first thing I ask them is, "I want you, with all of your cognitive power, I want you to stop your heart from beating, I want you to think it, I want you to just stop that heart from beating." And they stop, and I don't care I've talked in Asia, Europe, all around the world, they stop and then they giggle. Because they're like, "I can't do that." And I'm like, "exactly." Because that animal brain is like why would I stop my heart from beating, that's not good for me, I'm supposed to live. And so we have to learn how to calm that animal brain through our senses the same way that it was triggered so that we can calm it. But it's not something we should feel guilty about, or bad that we can't do it, or that I'm not smart or I just believed in or was faithful enough I wouldn't have this response. No, you're going to have the response, but those are all of our tools that can help us work through the response.

Johnnette: Yea. Several things I want to ask you about and let's just start with this last point first. So when you talk about the types of triggers that happen because there's been a trauma that's been experienced and now this is imprinted, so you know that response is going to well up in you because it's actually responding to the original event. This is just something that is reminding you of that event, and so it comes up. That's one kind of anxiety. And then there's the other anxiety that sometimes we have because I'm not good enough, you know I'm not going to measure up, you know I'm not a top achiever in my class, nothing is ever going to work well for me and that can cause a different, well its panic, but it's a whole different process that is taking place I think? Am I right?

Catherine: Yes and no, and that's why I think anxiety is so fascinating because the animal brain really focuses on our survival so if I'm not, what my brain goes through is if I'm not the top achiever I might not get a job. If I don't get a job I might not be able to feed my family, then I'm gonna go hungry...then I'm gonna be homeless...then I'm gonna die. Right, so that's where it goes so like yes, we beat ourselves up. We are bullies to ourselves over like, why are you anxious about this test? You shouldn't be, it's no big deal. But our animal brain knows that it's this fear of what will happen if this doesn't happen. And so a lot of times we have to stop and be like, "if I miss this test, am I gonna go homeless?" No that's irrational. No, I'm gonna retake it, and I'm gonna have all of these other tests, and it'll be okay. Um but that's how our brains work, that we think it's not scary. I do the first time you meet your inlaws, right people get very anxious and people are like, "oh it was very nice and it was no big deal." But in your mind, you're thinking oh my gosh if this doesn't go well then I can't stay with my boyfriend, then we might not get married, you know...then I'm gonna end up homeless (insert laughter) right and then I'm gonna...

Johnnette: We're all the way down the road on that thing

Catherine: Exactly. You down this rabbit hole and what I challenge my clients to do is to really walk down that hole. I call it the Then What Exercise. Okay, you're afraid of this, or this is causing you anxiety. What happens? Okay, then what...then what...and we keep walking down until they're like, "nothing." And I'm like yea, exactly. It'll be okay. And that's when we can start to tell that animal brain, "we're okay."

Johnnette: The other thing I wanted to ask you about was you know you used the word high alert, you know that the animal brain senses danger, and then the body starts to pump adrenaline and it seems to me that when..coming from this pandemic for example right or the people in Ukraine for example who have been on high alert for a sustained period of time you know men who are fighting in a battle or war right they're on high alert. Sometimes it takes time for that, that high-alert adrenaline rush and flow that your body has really gotten used to putting out, to kinda calm down and to start to function normally again.

Catherine: Absolutely. So one, we have to be kind to ourselves. So one thing that I work with my clients all the time is I want to create a sticker that says, "don't be a bully" and then at the bottom "to your self". Right? It is that we are going to be on high alert for a while, we live in a society, so even if you think about the media, what are they...they need you to click. So what do they highlight all the time, there's something wrong, what's gonna be next right, it feeds off of that. And so yes we have to acknowledge that, but we also have to realize that once that happens we might also have that alert once and a while. Because that brain, if you look at a PTSD veteran his animal brain is actually bigger. It's like because of the inundation, it's almost like the muscle gets stronger. I like to think of it as a point if you ever know the military, the fox hole, you're staring and looking and waiting that's something that can actually change the impacts on your brain and so instead of being upset with ourselves and thinking there's something wrong with me be like okay I understand that there might be a change in my brain and now how I approach things is different.

Johnnette: We have to go to a break but this is a fascinating discussion and friends I hope that it is helping you to understand yourself, or a loved one a little bit better because some of the things are not preventable it's part of what happens. There are tools that we can use and strategies that we can deploy and we'll be talking about those tomorrow once the whole problem is identified. I want you to get out to EWTN's religious catalog "The Catholic Guide Through Anxiety" written by our guest today Catherine DiNuzzo is available for you there. This is a very helpful book, it explains everything to you just as she is explaining it to you today, and as a matter of fact, I felt like you were sitting next to me as I was reading it, taking me through. So it's available for you on EWTN's religious catalog also want to tell you that a DVD copy of our program today, and tomorrow is available for you there so it might be a very very good way for you to reinforce what you're hearing if you get the two together. could be something that is very useful to someone that you know that suffers in these ways. And especially to let them know that it's all going to be okay. We're gonna be right back after the break, stay with us.

To view the rest of this program featuring author Catherine DiNuzzo, click here

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