Monday, December 2, 2013

Christianity and depression

Ashley Roberts is a junior Psychology and Theology major at Trinity Christian College.  She is currently a Resident Assistant for upperclassman in Alumni Hall.  She has just begun to look at graduate schools; she hopes to study Psychology at graduate level to eventually become a Licensed Clinical Professionals Counselor.  Ashley has a huge heart for service and hopes to love and serve God’s people for the rest of her life.    

            In the Heart Cry Biblical Model of Depression (HCM), David P. Armentrout (2004) attempts to persuade researchers that depression is a normal, God created response.  According to Armentrout, depression is a response that is spiritual function, as well as biological and psychological.  He assumes that this response was originally intended by God to propel corrective action in a way that furthers wisdom, sensitivity, resilience, and hope.  However, as with all things in a fallen world, the depressive response has been distorted and thus has devastating effects.  Armentrout (2004) introduces this model with empirical data comparing those suffering with depression who believe in God and those who do not.  In general, studies have found that religious involvement is positively correlated with lower levels of depression and suicide.  However, another study has shown that depression levels are higher in religious youth that have lost a sibling than those who are not religious.  In the same study, approximately twenty-four months after the loss, the participants were re-interviewed.  Researchers found that those same religious youth had significantly lower levels of depression, while nonreligious youth were still significantly more depressed (Armentrout, 2004).  Armentrout thus concludes with the HCM, “that a Christ softened heart may make an individual more susceptible to depressed feelings, the course of recovery should be faster and less likely to multiply into destructive depression” (p 41). 
            Armentrout highlights that many symptoms of depression align with symptoms of spiritual distress.  He centralizes HCM around 70 Hebrew words found in Scripture and the many references that describe a spiritual loss.  This spiritual loss can be produced by physical or cognitive events that decrease one’s awareness or God or an event that creates perceived separation from God such as enmeshment in sin.  Armentrout also states an individual with a Christ softened heart may experience feelings of depression when mourning with others.  In both schools of thought, the depressed response promotes the loving of God and neighbor if delivered from such feelings.  Normal feelings of depression can thus be seen as motivational in some circumstances.  However, depressed feelings are maladaptive when they become persistent and recurrent.  Armentrout recognizes here that there are some biological preconditions that might make depression reoccur, especially if underlying neurochemical disturbances are occurring during the depression.  Analyses show, once an individual is depressed he or she is vulnerable to become depressed again.Depression is spiraling in nature.  However, Armentrout does not want to simply credit depression to biology.  He cites studies that indicate that pharmacology and cognitive therapy may yield the same results in decreasing symptomology.  He thus concluded that when depression proceeds as God designed it, it will be resolved, self limiting, and usually have some form of enlightenment.  However, when it does not follow design, whether due to chosen habits or predisposed unconscious cognitions, depression will be processed on a destructive and self-repeating path (Armentrout, 2004).
            As I consider my development in understanding depression, this article could prove to be very formational.  Depression is so multifaceted and complex that it is hard to explain.  Even harder to explain is that an individual seems to truly feel the absence of God during such times.  Conceptually, this is a lot easier to understand if the Lord uses depression as a normal and adaptive response.  This solidifies the fact that Lord works in mysterious ways, and it all brings Him glory. 
            For further research, I would be interested in two main questions.  How should a clinician engage someone who does not love the one true God?  If depression is a spiritual issue at its core, then a clinician’s goal would be ultimately to share the gospel with their non-Christian clients.  What would that actually look like?  How would Armentrout proceed?  I would also like him to continue to flesh out the biological context of depression.  Some individuals do seem to be clearly predisposed to depression.  In that case, is it more of a biological issue than a spiritual one?       
       As one considers depression and Christianity, the tensions are easily recognizable.  How often has a clinically depressed person been told they are not having enough faith in the Lord, or that he or she just needs to “pray it out”? For whatever reason within the church, depression is often associated with faithlessness.  In the HCM, Armentrout combats this.  A major strength of this model is that he reframes how depression should be viewed.  If depression is a response designed by God it allows for more understanding and grace on behalf of the church.  I would hope that it takes the cultural shame found within the church out of depression.  Another strength I see in his article is that Armentrout does not use Scripture to supplement his findings, but instead uses Scripture as the foundation of his model.  As a Christian psychologist, integration is a long life-challenge; Armentrout successfully exemplifies integration.  This is something I hope to strive for as I continue in the world of psychology. 

Armentrout, D.P. (2004). The normal and pathological genesis of depression: The “Heart Cry” biblical model of depression revisited. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 23(1) 40-50.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

An apologetic for a Christian practice of mindfulness

In April of 2013 the psychology department of Trinity Christian College hosted it's annual conference. The conference, entitled Psychology Renewed, focused on the concept of mindfulness. The following post reflects one of the presentations at the conference. 

If I told Christian people that I was writing a blog on mindfulness I can imagine the looks I would get. Some would be purely quizzical – others, queasy. Mindfulness sounds too “out there”, too wishy-washy, too new-age, too Buddhist. However, if you look at how mindfulness is defined and discussed in many psychological circles it is possible to see mindfulness as a practice of certain orthodox Christian attitudes.

First, mindfulness involves holding a non-judgmental attitude toward one’s thoughts and experience (Carmody, 2009).

A Christian practicing this aspect of mindfulness is accepting the forgiveness of their thoughts. Many scripture passages speak of God knowing the hearts of men. Psalm 139:1-4 says that God knows our actions when we sleep, when we sit, and when we go out, but he also knows our thoughts and knows the words on our mouths before we say them. Not only does God know our interior life but he knows that we can sin in our interior life as Matthew 5:28 explains about committing adultery in the heart.

It is important to remember that Christ died for all our sins, those of the heart and mind as well as those of behavior. Many Christians get caught up in works-righteousness, trying to be perfect before God to the point of trying to perfect their own thought-life. Guilt is then suffered over bad thoughts and pride is committed over good thoughts. A Christian practicing mindfulness can recognize that some thoughts are just thoughts and those thoughts that are sinful are nailed to the cross at Calvary and hold dominion no more. Christ forgives us and forgives our thought life. An acceptance of this fact looks a lot like mindful non-judgment.

Second, mindfulness involves being in the present moment (Carmody, 2009).

A Christian practicing this aspect of mindfulness realizes that God created us so to live one moment of our lives at a time. Christians who dwell on the past find it difficult to mature and grow and work toward the kingdom of God. Christians who focus on the future may forget to acknowledge who holds the future. God gives us one moment at a time and if we constantly think about our lists, our schedules, and all the things we have to do we run the risk of not fully honoring and respecting God, his creatures, or his creation. For example, when talking with a friend we honor that person as a creature of God by listening attentively, asking questions, and showing we care rather than thinking of the errands we need to run that day. When sitting at a child’s soccer game and the sun shines brilliantly in the sky and the birds are calling to each other in the trees we honor God’s creation by sitting still and enjoying it rather than immediately responding to emails on our smart phones. By living in the present moment we honor God, who, existing outside of time, also lives in an eternal present. This too is a practice of mindfulness.

Last, mindfulness involves giving up control (Mace, 2008).

A Christian practicing this aspect of mindfulness recognizes that we are not in control but God is. Many Christians feel burdened by responsibilities; they feel responsible to bring others to Christ, to raise a family with Christian principles, to be good examples at their workplaces, and to be engaged in their communities. It is important to recognize that the outcomes of these activities do not depend on us. We are not ultimately in control. God is not our co-pilot; he is our pilot. We must always hand over the reins, submit ourselves to God, recognize that it is Christ who lives and works through us, act as servants of God, and repeat the words of Jesus: “not as I will, but as you will.” Acknowledging God’s sovereignty can be a form of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is essentially a practice. For Christians who want a discipline for practicing these spiritual truths they should not be deterred by the wishy-washy sounding name and Buddhist associations of mindfulness. In fact, I think we could all do with a little more Christian mindfulness.


Carmody, J. (2009). Evolving conceptions of mindfulness in clinical settings.

Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 23(3), 270-280. Doi:10.1891/0889-3891.23.3.270

Mace, C. (2008). Mindfulness and mental health: Therapy, theory and science. New York, NY:Routledge/Taylor& Francis Group. 

Jessica Clevering, PhD Assistant Professor of Psychology, Trinity Christian College

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Mindfulness in reformed perspective

In April of 2013 the psychology department of Trinity Christian College hosted it's annual conference. The conference, entitled Psychology Renewed, focused on the concept of mindfulness. The following post reflects one of the presentations at the conference. 

Recently the Trinity Christian College Psychology Department held a conference on the topic of “Mindfulness in Life and Clinical Practice”.  As a psychologist in the Reformed theological tradition I wanted to share my own connection with this highly influential idea in the field of contemporary psychology and counseling.  Mindfulness in its contemporary form is largely associated with the meditative practices developed in Eastern cultures.  Way back in the 1970s the work of Herbert Benson achieved considerable attention under the rubric of the Relaxation Response and what was then referred to as Transcendental Meditation.  At the time I made some clinical use of Progressive Relaxation Exercises as a treatment for stress but did not explore meditative practice to any depth.  My sustained contact with meditative practice came later through my familiarity with the work of my departmental collogue, Dr. Colosimo in yoga.  As many in our community know, Dr. Colosimo is a highly proficient yoga instructor and has shared with her colleagues and our entire campus the gift of yoga practice for many years now.  I have supported Dr. Colosimo work over the years but I have not been an active student of yoga—not yet.   

My own therapeutic work and training has been largely from Western cultural sources:  psychoanalysis, existential, and humanistic.  Eastern meditative practice seemed far removed from the insight oriented therapies in which I was trained.  During the last 20 years however, meditative and mindfulness practices have gradually made inroads into mainstream therapeutic practice not through the psychodynamic paradigm, but mostly through the cognitive-behavioral perspective.  Through another department member, Dr. Hassert, I was introduced some years ago to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy developed by Stephen Hayes and it was through ACT that I first encountered what I consider to be a clinical approach that integrated Eastern concepts of mindfulness with Western therapeutic concepts of cognition, emotion, and behavior.   What do we mean by “mindfulness”?   A leading mindfulness proponent defines it simply as: “A way of paying attention to the present moment, on purpose and without judgment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2005).  Mindfulness is a way of being present to the world and others without control or avoidance of what comes to consciousness.  To practice mindfulness is to release the demand/need to control our conscious experience, focus upon what is present, and develop acceptance of that which emerges to consciousness.
Postmodern persons seek a way of life that offers a functional context of purpose and value and can be embodied through practicing concrete patterns of behavior.  For postmoderns truth is not anchored in a tradition believed to be the one and only way. Rather than seeking a dogmatic orthodoxy, postmoderns describe themselves as pursuing a “spiritual journey”, searching for shelter under a “sacred canopy” (Berger, 1967).  Mindfulness works because it facilitates the spiritual journey.  It offers a way of being present in the world without rigid control or schematic filters that lead to behavioral avoidance and mental suffering.  Mindfulness must be practiced as an ongoing effort to be conscious in a manner that promotes resiliency in the day to day struggles of life.  When Christian counselors employ mindfulness techniques in therapy these liturgical practices from Eastern religious traditions are transformed into therapeutic exercises and then ingrafted into the Christian community as one might take cuttings from one species of apple tree and graft them into another species of apple tree.

The emphasis on “practice” in mindfulness and meditation training links up with a growing scholarly discussion about the formative role of practices in shaping a way of life.  Learning a catechism of propositions, “truths” or “worldview” is insufficient in a world marked by fragmentation, plurality and multiple voices from diverse perspectives. The gap between rationally formulated principles and the application of principles to action and behavior has widened to the point of disconnection.  As philosopher Jamie Smith suggests, persons living in advanced industrial societies need to integrate truth with action through the training of “desires”, the most important of which is the shaping of what we “love” (Smith, 2009).  Postmodern persons have needs that do not benefit from more information, intellectual activity or more material “stuff”, but yearn for formative structures that help bring order out of chaos and provide a way through the fragmentation of contemporary life.  

Therapeutic techniques rooted in mindfulness offer many benefits.  First of all, they make available a set of counseling practices based in theory and validated through empirical testing.  It is desirable for therapists to “secularize” liturgical practices taken from eastern religious communities and functionally validate through clinical practice.  To do so is not necessarily practicing idolatry as a narrowly Augustinian perspective might suggest.  Psychotherapy typically operates in a professional space of “functional secularity” even when housed in a religious organization, community or institutional context.  Secondly, Mindfulness practices offer client-specificity, that is, practices tailored to the needs of the individuals in distress and caught in dysfunctional patterns that often are widely understood to be inappropriate and emotionally unhealthy.  Thirdly, spiritual practices can be explored apart from authority structures in which specific rituals are organized into orthodoxies that may not be directly linked to functional values of personal flourishing or emotional well-being.  Finally, spiritually oriented practices in professional counseling occur in the context of a supportive relationship with a mentor/therapist who is exclusively dedicated to the needs of individual clients.

It would seem right then to argue that in the context of Christian communities eastern meditation and mindfulness practices can be identified as psychological techniques that purport to achieve therapeutically valid results capable of empirical and experiential verification.  They are in fact extra-ecclesiastical, apart from the liturgical structure of the church.  Their value and effectiveness lies in their relationship to creational structures given to all humankind or in terms familiar to Reformed thinkers gifts of “common grace” like the warmth of the sun or the blessings of marriage.  What about techniques such as yoga, ACT, DBT or Mindfulness Stress Reduction?  All of these techniques employ mindfulness and meditation in the practical context of efforts to relieve human suffering and distress. The application of these techniques does not require assent to a larger framework of religious dogma.  Nor is it necessary to understand or believe in the transcendent meanings assigned to these practices in the religious systems from which they originated.  Rather taken as psychological techniques their validity is measured through empirical testing of their effectiveness in reducing psychological dysfunction and distress.

It is incumbent upon Christian communities and individuals to responsibly articulate this posture in the context of their employment of meditative and mindfulness practice so that misunderstanding can be avoided. To achieve this requires sensitivity to the concerns of those who are skeptical regarding these techniques.   Exploration of these techniques must be practiced in dialog with the faith communities in which they are located but ultimately the proof is in the fruit.  Growing numbers of counselors and clients testify to the benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices.  We ought to embrace and celebrate these gifts of healing and life-enhancement.


Berger, P.  (1967). The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion.      Garden City, NY:  Doubleday Publishers.

Kabat-Zinn, J (2005).  Coming to our senses:  Healing the world and ourselves through mindfulness.  New York:  Hyperion.

Smith, J.K.A. (2009).  Desiring the kingdom.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic.

Further Reading of interest

Boykin, K.  Zen for Christians.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Jones, J.W.  (2003).  The mirror of God.  New York:  MacMillan

Michael J. DeVries, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Trinity Christian College 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The socio-cultural perspective versus the Christian perspective of psychology

Rebecca Felten currently works as a Documentation Control Assistant at Sargento Foods, Inc in Plymouth, Wisconsin. She is currently attending Trinity Christian College, pursuing a major in Business with a minor in Psychology. She plans on graduating in the Winter of 2014. She hopes to use the skills and knowledge she gains to begin a career in human resources. She has a passion for working with others and utilizing the talents of various people. Also, she wishes to revisit Vicente Guerrero, Mexico, and serve at the orphanage there. The following is an excerpt from a larger paper written as part of the author’s participation in an Introduction to Psychology course.

The Christian perspective unmasks a person’s heart and mind, which were created by God. God created each of us with a specific purpose and plan. He created us with brains and hearts in perfect states. Our mental activity and behavior became misdirected when humans chose to sin. This separated us from perfection, and affected the way we think and act now. He provides our families and cultures to impact us, though not always in the way that is honorable to God. We have become misdirected because of our sinful nature.

God has redeemed us though in sending His son on the cross, which gives us identity and foundation in Christ, rather than solely on our cultural and social background. Ephesians 1:4 says; “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” The examples of moral attitudes and cognitive development mentioned before can be evident in this perspective as well. God created us with different capacities, gifts, and tendencies as a part of his perfect plan. Each individual was sovereignly and perfectly created in His image. The negative influences of culture and society are due to the fallen world. Since God redeemed the world, His grace is poured down on us and can transform our mental processes and behavior.

 Psychology is defined as the science of behavior and mental processes (Myers, 2011). Christianity digs right into the inquiry of human nature, what our problem is and how we react. The Christian perspective of psychology explains behavior and mental processes in the knowledge and understanding that God is sovereign. That point cannot be emphasized enough. Jesus Christ, once and for all, saved us. Psalm 66:5 says, “Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works in man’s behalf!” Our entire life and development is shaped by His grace, whether we come to believing in Him or not.

As human behavior and mentality are studied, it is evident that the socio-cultural perspective emphasizes cultural influence while the Christian perspective emphasizes God’s sovereignty and influence over society and culture. God provides our families and cultures to impact us, but within God’s will. They cannot on their own explain our formation, being, and why we act or think as we do. God created us, knowing who we would be and how we would act. We were created for a purpose and by God’s grace. He has ultimate authority over everything. Everyone can feel the force of God’s will – his goodness and order. Society doesn’t always accept it, but everyone experiences it. Within His will, there is freedom to receive Jesus Christ. Humans are free and responsible through the Holy Spirit to turn their direction towards the one who created them.

While some of the cultural and social values we are surrounded with can parallel with God’s, there are many that are not according to His will. Knowing the sovereignty of God’s will, a person’s culture or social background do not stand in His way or take sole influence over individuals. God can choose to completely overrun every standard for culture we have experienced and even believe, and call someone to faith in Him. It is His pleasure to magnify the glory of His free and sovereign grace in choosing people that they might bring Him praise and glory.

To assume that our mental processes and behavior are impacted solely by culture leads to an unpredictable, misleading path. This perspective limits the power of God and leads to the belief in an inconstant foundation.  To put our trust or faith in the culture or family around us as a determinant of our being is not stable, reliable, or true. As said before, moral attitudes can be greatly influenced by the culture we live in and how we were raised by our parents. The concept that people often overlook regards the original development of our moral sense. The discernment of what is appropriate in our thinking and acting comes from God and Him alone.

In conclusion, the socio-cultural perspective explains the role of our upbringing and environment as the sole source of our psychology, but the Christian perspective unmasks the heart and mind that were sovereignly created by God and behavior within His will. The socio-cultural perspective on psychology focuses on how behavior and thinking vary across situations and cultures. The Christian perspective stresses the basis that God created each of us with a specific purpose and sovereign plan. He created us with brains and hearts in perfect states. Our mental activity and behavior became misdirected when humans chose to sin, but He redeemed us and called us to Him within His will. Isaiah 40:13-14, 28 explains the sovereignty and constant nature of our Creator who is not limited by culture and who sets the standards for morality:

Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor? Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding?... Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

To say that humans are influenced and molded solely by their society and culture would diminish the power of Jesus Christ. Christianity explains behavior and mental processes in the knowledge and understanding that God is sovereign.


Light, P., Sheldon, S., & Woodhead, M. (1991). Learning to think. London: Routledge.

Myers, D. G. (2011). Exploring psychology (8th ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

The Holy Bible: New International Version.. (1984). Colorado Springs, CO: International Bible Society.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Martin Luther and mindfulness

In April of 2013 the psychology department of Trinity Christian College hosted it's annual conference. The conference, entitled Psychology Renewed, focused on the concept of mindfulness. The following post reflects one of the presentations at the conference. 

The German theologian and reformer Martin Luther famously told the story of a young man who came to him seeking counsel concerning intrusive and troubling thoughts of a sexual nature. In response, Luther told of a monk who gave advice to a man with similar mental intrusions: “'You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building nests in your hair.’ It is all right to have these thoughts, but let them remain just that—thoughts”(Luther, 1998). In this instance Luther provided an insightful example of how certain elements that we seek to control in our experience (such as unwanted thoughts) can become more disruptive when we attend to them and ruminate on their possible significance. Instead, Luther says to those troubled by such thoughts: "Let them pass by." Our tendency is too often to allow the thoughts to nest in our minds, take up residence, and provide us with subsequent opportunities to focus on them. In so doing we are often kept from exercising those behaviors that would be in greater accord with our values. What Luther was requesting of the young man was to be “accepting”--but not “embracing”--of the unwanted thoughts that were passing through his conscious mind. However, the question remains “How do I develop this skill to ‘let the birds pass by?’”   
For the young man who came to Luther, the behaviors that he valued may have been broadly defined or centered on the concept of "becoming more like Christ," the process of sanctification. The behaviors that were in accord with this concept may have been activities such working with the poor, loving others, Scripture reading, engaging in communal prayer, partaking of the Eucharist, etc. Perhaps the young man thought that if he had such intrusive thoughts repeatedly that he, by logical necessity, would be forced to act upon them: If he was the sort of person who could entertain such thoughts and feelings leading to overt behaviors he may have believed that this precluded him from engaging in the behaviors that were more Christ-like. Luther's mindful admonition points out the fallacy with which we usually work: Our feelings and our thoughts dictate our actions and our thoughts will result in overt behavior. Since we have already failed in our minds perhaps we shouldn’t try to live our valued life. Christ reminds us that “. . .nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15, English Standard Version). We have a choice in the path of action we take and our behavior is not decided solely by what has come before: What has entered our minds does not, by necessity, dictate how we will behave now or in the future.


Luther, M. (1998). By faith alone: 365 devotional readings updated in today's language. Iowa   City, IA: World Bible Publishers.

Derrick Hassert, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Trinity Christian College. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Reflections on an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program

In April of 2013 the psychology department of Trinity Christian College hosted it's annual conference. The conference, entitled Psychology Renewed, focused on the concept of mindfulness. The following post reflects one of the presentations at the conference. 

I have been involved in the study of mindfulness, particularly mindfulness meditation, for many years as part of my yoga training and teaching.  I came to this study after experiencing the following quotation from Eastern mindfulness practices on my journey:  “Imagine that every person in the world is enlightened but you.  They are all your teachers, each doing just the right things to help you learn patience, perfect wisdom, and perfect compassion.”  This quote is attached to the computer in my home office.  As I read this quote on a daily basis, I am humbled and encouraged to move forward and bring mindfulness to every thought and action.

My colleagues and I shared some insights into mindfulness at our recent Psychology Renewed Conference during the spring semester at Trinity Christian College.  My part was to reflect upon the major research findings of an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program, one at Montana State University and the other at the University of Massachusetts.   I thought that this information was timely, since I was involved in this particular program for a second time.

The program began at The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University Of Massachusetts Medical School, dedicated to furthering the practice and integration of mindfulness in the lives of individuals, institutions, and in society through a wide range of clinical, research, education, and outreach initiatives in the public and private sector.  According to the program’s founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn, since its inception in 1970, more than 18,000 people have completed the program at the University and learned how to use their innate resources and abilities to respond more effectively to stress, pain, and illness. 

Based on the Kabat-Zinn model, Montana State University incorporated this program into their graduate program in counseling, arguing that few counseling programs directly address the importance of self-care in reducing stress and burnout in their curricula.  A course entitled “Mind/Body Medicine and the Art of Self-Care” was created to address personal/professional growth opportunities through self-care and mindfulness practices, including meditation, yoga, etc.  Most students reported intentions of integrating mindfulness practices into their future professions.

The research findings at both universities noted some important information.  Researchers have been evaluating MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) as a tool for helping university students cope with stress and have discovered decreased levels of depression.  Other researchers found similar reductions in state and trait anxiety, and increased scores on measures of spiritual experience and empathy in the program.  Researchers also discovered an increased quality of life due to program participation.

Based on this information and others, I enrolled in an eight-week mindfulness course for the second time.  I discovered what a student from Montana State noted, “I suppose it is the experience of connectedness that has affected my thoughts and questions about healing most significantly.  Contemplation remains at the center of my life and I continue to realize that every person in the world is my teacher, each doing the right things to help me learn patience, wisdom, and compassion.”


Baker, E.K. (2003).  Caring for ourselves:  A therapist's guide to personal and professional well-being, Washington, DC:  American Psychological Association.

Bickley, J. (1998).  Care for the caregiver:  The art of self-care.  Seminars in Perioperative Nursing, 7, 114-121.

Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, I., & Burney, R. (1985). The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 8, 163-190.

Lawson, K., & Horneffer, K., (2002).  Roots and Wings:  A pilot of a mind-body-spirit program. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 20, 250-263.

Roth, B., & Robbins, D. (2004).  Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health-related quality of life:  Findings from a bilingual inner-city patient population.  Psychosomatic Medicine, 66, 113 - 123.

Schure, M., Christopher, J.C., & Christopher, S.E. (2006). Mind/body medicine and the art of self-care:  Teaching mindfulness to counseling students through yoga, meditation and qi gong.  Journal of Counseling & Development.

Shapiro, S., Shapiro, D., & Schwartz, G. (2000). Stress management in medical education: A review of the literature.  Academic Medicine, 75, 748 - 759.

Mary Lynn Colosimo, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Trinity Christian College

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Considering mindfulness in trauma recovery

In April of 2013 the psychology department of Trinity Christian College hosted it's annual conference. The conference, entitled Psychology Renewed, focused on the concept of mindfulness. The following post reflects one of the presentations at the conference. 

We live in a world that is plagued by violence, destruction and catastrophe. Unfortunately, it would seem that opportunities to experience trauma are all around us. From a Christian perspective this can be seen as a result of original sin entering into God’s perfect creation. Trauma is characterized as “a serious injury or emotional wound that creates substantial, lasting damage to the psychological development of a person” ( In fact the word trauma comes from the Greek word for “wound”. Psychologically we use it to refer to experiences that overwhelm a person’s ability to function (Follette & Vijay, 2009). Psychologists have long recognized that the psychological effects of experiencing traumatic events can be significant and long-lasting. Individuals can develop maladaptive coping patterns, the extreme of which is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is characterized by re-experiencing the trauma through nightmares, flashbacks and physical reactions. Symptoms of PTSD often result in major impairments to an individual’s relationships and quality of life. Exposure to trauma does not always result in the development of maladaptive stress reactions, but when it does individuals experience a tremendous amount of pain and suffering.

Usually individuals with exposure to trauma attempt to cope with it by avoiding painful or provoking stimuli. However, paradoxically when we attempt to avoid thinking about something it actually increases its frequency. This leads to more exposure to the traumatic event instead of less. Experiential avoidance is characterized by a psychological unwillingness to remain present with particular emotions due to their difficulty or intensity (Follette, Palm, & Rasmussen Hall, 2004). Individuals who employ experiential avoidance as a primary coping strategy also tend to show cognitive inflexibility and increased symptoms of PTSD (Thompson, Arnkoff, & Glass 2011).

So what can help lead to healing?

As a psychologist I am interested in understanding what can help to heal the brokenness that often results from trauma. I wonder where is the hope for hurting people? This question comes from my belief that hope is crucial to growth and change.

Mindfulness practice offers an alternative to experiential avoidance. Mindfulness can be defined as the “moment to moment awareness of one’s experiences without judgment” (Davis & Hayes, 2012). Mindfulness stresses the importance of paying attention to the moment but also recognizing that the moment is transient. Its goal is to change one’s relationship to one’s thoughts. Instead of seeing difficult emotions such as pain and fear as permanent using mindfulness allows the possibility that thoughts and feelings can shift over time (Thompson et al., 2011). It is a unique way of thinking and attending to one’s thoughts that often results in greater calmness and stability (Follette, Palm, & Pearson, 2006). Mindfulness operates as a mechanism for sustaining a “moment to moment focused awareness and openness to one’s internal experience and immediate environment” (Briere, 2012). 

Survivors of trauma can benefit from attempts to notice and attend to painful feelings while also allowing them to transform into something new. Mindfulness encourages acceptance rather than avoidance as a primary coping strategy (Follette et al., 2009). Acceptance does not critique one’s experience of something painful, but rather notices it and offers an opportunity for it to pass.

Mindfulness also offers an opportunity for trauma survivors to relearn the ability to manage and process difficult emotions. By practicing mindfulness an individual is actively enlarging her capacity to review and notice emotions (Follette et al., 2006). This is crucial for the psychological health of trauma survivors because “emotion regulation skills are necessary for individuals to modulate the frequency and intensity of their emotions in order to safely and fully experience the wide range of trauma-related thoughts, feelings and memories they have been working diligently to avoid” (Follette et al., 2004, p. 202). It appears that by noticing one’s emotions in a non-judgmental manner there is increased ability to tolerate distressing and painful memories. This means that a trauma survivor can spend less time attempting to suppress difficult memories and more time engaging with the world around her (Follette et al., 2006).

Mindfulness practice results in fewer symptoms of trauma exposure and an increased ability to hold painful emotions (Follette et al., 2006). It actually changes our relationship to our thoughts, instead of seeing thoughts as fixed and impermeable we can shift to seeing our thoughts as momentary reflections of the present reality. As we increase our contact with the present moment through mindful thinking we decrease rumination on the past (Thompson et al., 2011). By attending to the present moment our minds are more in tune with the emotional content of the moment and less concerned with controlling or avoiding it. Practicing these skills results in a greater ability to regulate one’s emotions.

In addition to acceptance and emotional regulation developing increased psychological flexibility is associated with more adaptive engagement to the world. Psychological flexibility is the ability to contact the present moment as a conscious human being and make choices about behavior based on what the situation affords in line with one’s chosen values (Follette et al., 2009). More simply put it is the ability to recognize that our emotions can also be short-term in nature and it is critical to make decisions based on longer-term goals and objectives.

What are the implications?

Trauma reflects one of the most broken areas of humanity. It is in this overwhelming and tremendously difficult place that we can find opportunities to see God’s healing powers. While trauma is devastating finding hope can change our entire orientation to the world. As a psychologist who is of the reformed tradition of Christianity I look in both the psychological world as well as the religious to find paths of hope and change. Based on the possibilities it appears that mindfulness practice offers survivors of trauma an opportunity to develop a place of healing. For that I am grateful and encouraged. 


Briere, J. (2012). Working with trauma: Mindfulness and compassion. In C. Germer & R. Siegel (Eds.), Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy: Deepening Mindfulness in Clinical Practice (pp. 265-279), Guilford Press.

Davis, D.M. & Hayes, J.A. (2012, July/August). What are the benefits of mindfulness? Monitor on Psychology, 64-70.

Follette, V., Palm, K.M. & Pearson, A.N. (2006). Mindfulness and trauma: Implications for treatment. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 24, 45-61.

Follette, V.M., Palm, K.M. & Rasmussen Hall, M.L. (2004). Acceptance, mindfulness, and trauma. In S. Hayes, V. Follette and M. Linehan, (Eds.), Mindfulness and acceptance: Expanding the cognitive-behavioral tradition (pp. 192-208). Guilford Press.

Follette, V.M. & Vijay, A. (2009) Mindfulness for trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder. In F. Didonna, (Ed.), Clinical handbook of mindfulness (pp. 299-317), Springer Science and Business Media.

Thompson, R.W., Arnkoff, D.B., & Glass, C.R. (2011). Conceptualizing mindfulness and acceptance as components of psychological resilience to trauma. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 12, 220-235. doi: 10.177/1524838011416375

Kara E. Wolff, PhD Assistant Professor of Psychology, Trinity Christian College

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Free will, the Holy Spirit, and the best predictor of future behavior

When I assign a compare/contrast essay to my Introduction to Psychology students I usually get certain responses. I ask the students to pick a perspective that has influenced the field of psychology (e.g. biological, behaviorist, cognitivist, humanist) and compare it to a Christian perspective. Students will often choose the behaviorist or biological perspective and rightly point out that these perspectives are very deterministic in nature while a Christian perspective supports the existence of human free will. Some students will also insightfully note that materialist worldviews like behaviorism ignore the possibility of the Holy Spirit acting in people’s lives to instigate change. 

My students are right, but sometimes I worry about them. As Christians we hear stories of dramatic conversions. We hear of people who were addicted to drugs and lived on the streets but who have turned their life around through Christ’s power. We talk about Chuck Colson who became a Christian and completely changed his life after being involved in the Watergate scandal. We read of the apostle Paul who went from persecuting Christians to preaching the gospel. These are powerful stories. They show that hearts can change, that God is mighty, and that no one’s future is determined by nature or nurture. However, there is a reason we treasure these miraculous events. It is because they are extraordinary. Extra-ordinary. Not ordinary. Usually change is very, very difficult. 

This is where my concern for my students comes in. It is somewhat of a psychological truism that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If I want to predict if a man will smoke a cigarette tomorrow the most important information I can get is not his age, not his attitude toward cigarettes, not even his faith in God, but whether or not he smoked a cigarette today. If I want to predict a woman’s attendance to a particular class session the most valuable information I can get is not her attitude toward class, not her Meyers-Briggs personality type, but her prior attendance record. 

While it is true that people can change, and that the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of mankind, it would be unwise for us to ignore all of the useful insights that psychologists have gained while working under biological and behaviorist perspectives. Just because we reject the worldview of materialist perspectives like behaviorism we should not reject the research that came out of those perspectives. There is a lot to learn by studying brains, genes, learned behaviors, and early childhood experiences. We must not ignore the effects of neurotransmitters, the influence of inherited traits, or the power of learned behaviors. 

If we fail to take to heart the lessons learned from these perspectives through the over-emphasis of free will and change we run the risk of making bad decisions. As my dedicated students work hard to reject the anti-Christian ideas in some psychological theories I can’t help but fast-forward in my imagination to their futures. What if student X finds herself in an abusive relationship? Will she stick with him and believe that with enough love he will change? Or will she remember that nature, nurture, and learned behaviors are strong forces, highly resistant to change? What if student Y bends to the temptation to view internet pornography a handful of times? Will he remind himself of human free will and tell himself he can stop at any time? Or will he understand that such images are acting as powerful reinforcers and he is leading himself into a habit that has all the hallmarks of an addictive behavior?

God can change hearts and He can change minds and He can do these things in radical ways, but sometimes God allows us to struggle through the character-building life-lessons of slow and difficult change. As we struggle we can use the information God gave us through studies in psychological science. I always hope my students are enabled to do just that. 

Jessica Clevering, PhD., Assistant Professor of Psychology, Trinity Christian College

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Psychology, Christianity, and Gender

Megan Regalado currently works in a residential program as an Eating Disorder Counselor in Southern California. She graduated from Trinity Christian College in December ’12 with a Bachelor of Arts, in Psychology and a minor in Sociology. She hopes to attend graduate school in the Fall in order to obtain her Masters of Science in Counseling, and become a Marriage and Family Therapist. She plans on spending her career focusing on working with teens struggling with addictions.

Psychology, Christianity, and Gender

Differences in gender can be seen through social dominance, aggression, and sexuality, but as Christians we should understand the topic of gender differences as differences that are created in order to demonstrate the need for one another in a fallen world.

Social dominance can affect an individual’s view of a person’s social rank, and can overall affect the hierarchy pattern in which males are most often viewed as possessing more social dominance. Psychology examines reasons that the need for dominance is apparent in society.  Ainsworth and Maner (2012) suggest that males have an underlying need for dominance among one another as well as among females. Some psychologists suggest the role of men has been to be more socially dominant than women and to express this dominance through positions of authority.

Men and women differ in their styles of aggression, where men are viewed by psychologists as being more aggressive. Aggression then spills over into relationships among men and women. Ross’s (2012) findings suggested that physical, sexual, and psychological abuse tended to co-occur in the relationships of women with highly violent or controlling partners. Aggression and social dominance are often spoken of in the same breath when psychologists discuss the need for a male to obtain a mate for reproduction. This negative view of the aggression of men is discussed in terms of a man’s sexuality.

Sexuality is another area where men and women differ in terms of emotional involvement and arousal. “Men’s sexuality revolves around physical factors, in which nature is predominant and the social and cultural dimension is secondary. For women, social and cultural factors play a much greater role, and the role of physical processes and biological nature is relatively smaller” (Baumeister, 2000, p. 368). Baumeister (2000) also suggests that women are more creatures of meaning while men are relatively creatures of nature. The evolutionary psychology view about the sexuality of men describes their motivation for sex as being driven by their need to pass on their genes.

From a Christian standpoint, God is the creator of man and woman. Differences in social dominance and sexuality can be seen through the initial creation of man and woman, but is affected by the sin that they fell into while in the garden. “Eve was in no way inferior to her husband, but she was nonetheless given a role that was subordinate to his leadership…The relationships within the Trinity illustrate perfectly how headship and submission can function within a relationship of absolute equals” (Macarthur, 2005, p. 7). Adam and Eve were created to produce offspring and those offspring were to fill the earth. They were naked in the garden together as man and wife, and were not ashamed. Upon sin entering creation through Adam and Eve, they saw themselves merely as individuals who were naked and ashamed, emphasizing their own knowledge of their bodies and how different they were from one another by attempting to cover themselves. The relationship between man and woman is affected by sin, but that also allows us to see how man and woman complement each other with their different qualities. Man and woman are created in order to demonstrate the need for one another in a fallen world and to glorify God through their interactions and relations with one another.


Ainsworth, S.E., & Maner, J.K. (2012). Sex begets violence: Mating motives, social dominance, and physical aggression in men. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 819-829. 
Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Gender differences in erotic plasticity: The female sex drive as socially flexible and responsive. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 347-374.
Macaruther, J. (2005). Twelve Extraordinary Women: How God Shaped Women of the Bible and What he Wants to do With You.  Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Ross, J. M. (2012).  Self-reported fear in partner violent relationships: Findings on gender differences from two samples. Psychology of Violence, 2, 58-74. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Research shows: Christians should take a pass on tackle football

Oftentimes clinical psychologists and mental health counselors like myself shy away from political issues and public advocacy.  We often define our work as a-political and even sometimes as morally non-judgmental especially in relation to political controversy.  Phillip Rieff, in his influential and insightful work, The Triumph of the Therapeutic suggested that it was Freud who introduced to the modern world the basic ideals of a therapeutic culture that avoids moral judgment, is largely anti-institutional, and retreats from public life.  Rieff suggests that Freud’s pessimism about social progress and his emphasis upon exploring the intra-psychic life appeals to modern persons who seek to retreat from the larger questions of social and political life and prefer to enjoy an expansion of their personal freedom and private interests. The fact is, in addition to functioning as therapists, psychologists are also citizens, parents, consumers and some are even church-going believers.  To avoid the issues arising from these roles is quite impossible—to remain silent and seek to remain merely private in one’s work and cultural life is itself a political stance.  Of course many psychotherapists have recognized the social and cultural origins of the mental health problems afflicting the client they see in their practice.  However the largely individualistic approach remains the dominant model for psychotherapy.  Public approaches to mental health do not focus on social or cultural change.  Mental health institutions manage individuals largely through medication and confinement of persons who pose a danger to themselves or others. 

Due to the widespread acceptance of the non-political, non judgmental, individualistic focus of psychotherapy it is difficult and sometimes awkward for psychologists and counselors to take public positions on social and political issues.  It seems inappropriate to one’s professional identity and doing so may be detrimental to one’s ability to attract clients. In this post, I am crossing the threshold into the public domain at the risk of stirring up a part of American culture that increasingly has taken on a religious aura.  I am talking about the sport of tackle football.  The Superbowl games of recent years have taken on the character of a “holy day” or holiday for many Americans.  Football games in many college and universities are festivals and grand events attended by hundreds of thousands each year.  Football is played in high school and can begin as early as elementary school for some.  Football has become America’s game displacing baseball.  While baseball may be America’s pastime, football has become its passion. 

Leaving the religious elements of football aside, the dark side of the game in terms of its dangers and long-term destructive effects upon the players has become a growing public issue.  Once just a quiet whisper confined to training rooms, the players themselves have finally begun to speak up and take action.  In several high-profile cases their voices has come from the barrel of a gun while others have turned to the courts.  Some 3,500 former NFL players are suing the league for damages resulting from football injuries.  It has taken suicides and lawsuits for the public to begin to reflect on the nature of the game itself.  What sport, other than boxing, is essentially focused on aggressive contact with opponents?  The sport is brutal and glorifies violence.  The New Orleans Saints were recently punished by the NFL when it became apparent that players were being encouraged and rewarded for intentionally injuring other players.  While the “Saints” behavior was extreme it exposed a mentality that has been part of the league and part of the culture of football for many decades.  Football players “put the hurt” on their opponents and the more aggressive, the better.   If this approach merely resulted in busted knees and broken ankles it would be perhaps tolerable, but recent research has given clear evidence of significant short-term and long term cognitive and emotional dysfunction resulting from playing tackle football.  The cognitive deficits appear not only when concussive injuries occur, but increasingly evidence points toward negative cognitive effects upon players from just one football season in which no apparent concussive injuries were reported.  The long-term effects are even more devastating resulting in higher incidence of Parkinson’s disease, major depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s among football players.   These medical effects are often associated with other psychological and interpersonal dysfunction—domestic violence, alcoholism and other forms of violent behavior.  Efforts to respond these issues from the NFL all the way down to high school football have included greater attention to concussions, lighter practices, penalties for grossly intentional and dangerous tackling, etc. along with well-funded public relations advertising highlighting how concerned the football establishment is about protecting players.  However, the fact remains that the risks now evident from playing football are endemic to the game itself and unavoidable given the nature of tackle football.  It is what makes the game what it is--attractive and exciting to play and to watch.

Because of this evidence I have begun to publically call for a ban upon tackle football.  Given what we now know, I counsel any parent concerned about the health of their children to boycott football for their kids and at their schools.   Based upon the research, I believe it to be a public responsibility for colleges and universities to terminate their tackle football programs.  And because I am a Christian psychologist I especially call on Christian institutions of higher learning to cease participation in a sport that poses such great risk to their students and offers up a set of values so contrary to a life of peace and good sportsmanship.

 Michael DeVries, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Trinity Christian College

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Navigating a way through

Psychology is a large and varied discipline and as a result holds many longstanding questions and areas of research. My particular home is in counseling psychology, and my perspective comes out of that discipline. Counseling psychology is grounded in a focus on normative development, counseling process and supervision, and an emphasis on multiculturalism.

Counseling psychologists are particularly interested in normative human development, which refers to how we grow and change over time. One issue that arises from this topic is that of prevention. For example, how do we prevent clinical depression? Or, what can we do to encourage resilience in adolescents? There is some agreement within the field that preventing a problem results in better long-term outcomes than treating it after it has already occurred. However, the question remains, how do we prevent mental health problems in the first place? My Reformed faith tradition has taught me to view people holistically, and therefore when thinking about prevention I seek to engage individuals on several levels: mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. To me prevention work can only be effective if it deals with all of these aspects of a person. Additionally, my faith reminds me that pain and suffering are not in complete opposition to health. There are times when enduing life’s trials can bring about great insight and personal development. I therefore seek to balance the benefits of preventing harm while also acknowledging the growth that can come from pain.

Further, on the topic of the counseling process, a question that arises is that of how change happens. What creates, motivates and ultimately spurs for us a new way of operating in the world? Scholars and clinicians have been trying to answer this question for some time with either a common-factors or critical-factors approach. Ultimately, however, it appears that psychologists have a variety of explanations for “why and how” change happens. As a person shaped by the Reformed tradition I use the framework of God’s sovereignty to explore this question. I have often wondered throughout my clinical work, what is the “right” thing to do? However, when I reflect on clients I’ve worked with there is unquestionably a sense of mystery to whether the treatment is effective. Sometimes clients make incredible progress, and in other instances treatment seems to have no effect. Even while I pursue academic answers to this mystery, I often remind myself that there is more “to the story” than I can see with my own eyes. For example, sometimes the process of therapy is a means of sustaining personal growth and development, but at other times it may not be the mode of change most useful. My faith encourages me to seek answers but also allows me to accept the unknown, as God is in all things and above all things and may often work in ways I do not understand.

As a counseling psychologist one of the most captivating issues in my profession is that of multiculturalism, especially questions regarding race and racism. For example, why does this divisive way of thinking, believing and acting continue to exist and morph into different iterations throughout history? How is it that in this country Whiteness continues to operate as a powerful privilege? I have personally spent many years wrestling with such questions, and I continue to realize that it is more important to be on the journey than to find a definitive answer. This journey involves what I see as the kingdom work of seeking reconciliation and changing the social order around the issues of race that still so often divide us. Even though such politically sensitive issues are difficult and messy, my faith and desire to understand humanity compels me to be a part of God’s pull and encourage others to be a part as well.

With that introduction to Psychology Renewed, I now invite you to join the conversation. How do you situate yourself in terms of worldview and professional identity? What helps you to navigate that path?

Dr Kara E Wolff, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Trinity Christian College