Dan Jurek – Licensed Marital Counselor, Guided by his Franciscan Spirituality, on How People are Coping with Today’s (COVID) Challenges

Dan Jurek, Licensed Professional Counselor and Marriage and Family Specialist, joined Discover Lafayette to discuss how the COVID shutdown has impacted individuals, couples, and families. Dan specializes in couples counseling.

Dan has more than 35 years of experience in adult counseling, and marriage and couples counseling, having studied at Franciscan University in Steubenville OH and earning a Masters in Catholic theology. His practice is guided by his Franciscan spirituality, following Christ in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.

He has utilized his experience to help all age groups in our community, having first moved here in 1990 at the urging of St. Thomas More High School’s Mike Keith who recruited him to work as Campus Minister. He also worked with Father Hampton Davis with the campus ministry on UL – Lafayette’s campus. He received a second master’s at Holy Cross in New Orleans and was licensed as a professional counselor in 2003.

Dan started Pax Renewal Center in Lafayette almost two decades ago, as he realized that counseling services were just as vital to a person’s health as exercise and nutrition. Cognizant that some people can’t afford to pay for counseling, Pax offers graduate students’ services who work under Dan’s tutelage, thereby offering counseling at a greatly reduced rate.

The COVID shutdown hit Pax Renewal Center and other area counselors just as it did other sectors. Things slowed down dramatically at first and then picked up again last September. Dan learned quickly that Zoom calls are just not as good as in-person sessions.

“Overwhelm” has been what we have all felt according to Dan, and when you stack stresses on top of each other, “The strongest person can only carry so much weight!” Families were impacted from all angles; the respite that parents had enjoyed when their children were in school or day care evaporated overnight. The fear of COVID, Mom and Dad working from home or looking for work, and the pressing need to buy computer equipment and become IT experts so as to manage online work and school stressed even the healthiest families. For couples who were already strained, who were confined at home together with no where to go, it all amped up energy in an unhealthy way.

“It broke my heart to work with families that experienced abusive situations as it all escalated. Things can quickly move from emotional abuse to physical abuse. Kids who weren’t able to attend school, getting that one square meal a day that school provided and having the opportunity to get out of their house to a safe place, their refuge was taken from them. Parents couldn’t protect their kids from abuse.”

As September 2020 rolled around and the world opened up a bit, couples therapy began anew online. Dan noted while Zoom “works,” you had couples who weren’t getting along having to sit shoulder to shoulder in an uncomfortable situation. It is also difficult for the therapist to pick up on important body language that is occurring from the chest down that is not visible on a Zoom call, such as shaking legs, clenched fists.

Use of substances rose, as have other addictive behaviors such as over/under eating, process addictions such as overuse of internet and pornography, and of course binge watching of shows on Netflix and other outlets. Rather than dealing with family or problems, people would numb out in front of the computer or television. So the pain remained.

Calling a counselor is one of the most courageous things a person can do. Calling someone and trusting them to help you feel better is typically a result of “inspiration or desperation,” according to Dan. But as they present, people are typically honest about the pain they feel and share universal symptoms of trauma, such as feeling out of control, insomnia, can’t eat or can’t stop eating.

It’s a false narrative to think you should be able to handle your problems. Dan says, people will tell him, “Why can’t I handle my problems? Everyone else has problems too.” But as a society, we’re not necessarily handling our problems, we’re burying them and turn to compulsive, addictive behavior, especially during these COVID times. If you can’t go out, it’s comforting to buy a lot of stuff online. The emotional toll has been great.

“A year ago in March, when everything stopped, everything stopped but people’s minds. If you were just ignoring inner turmoil that was already going on in your life that felt overwhelming, you had no choice but to deal with them. All you could do was sit in your backyard or go out for a walk. A lot of struggles bubbled up like a volcano. People did not know how to manage.”

The gift of counseling for individuals, couples and families is that their journey is validated and made real. “If we take a look at how you feel, it affects what you do. If we look at what you do, we can change what you do, and therefore help change how you feel.” Dan further explained that when you don’t feel attached to your self or your spouse/significant other, you can feel lost. It is traumatizing and you feel all alone. The one person who is supposed to feel safe no longer feels safe and communication breaks down.

It’s important to go from separate monologues to healthy communication involving dialogues. The #1 thing people say they want is to communicate better. Dan says the goal is for there to be one speaker, one listener, and to listen to each other and hear what the other is saying. It is also just as important to listen to your self, to listen to your inner voice. “All the answers are within each one of us. Dan believes counselors are like midwives, “We are just helping birth what is already there. I just coach my clients. My couples know how to love each other. They’ve just forgotten how!”

Interestingly, the very thing that attracts us to our spouse eventually can turn us off. As an example, introverts are attracted to extroverts, and vice versa. Organized people are attracted to free-spirited adventurers. You can imagine the turmoil that my develop over the years as these personality types have to navigate the inevitable conflicts that arise as the introvert prefers to stay home, or the free-spirited individual realizes their spouse wants things to be orderly and accounted for. But Dan says, “When we go into attack mode, we can’t communicate in a healthy way that honors the other person’s space.”

Dialogues is important to keep safe spaces open and avoid that “fight or flight” response that occurs when people feel insecure. At that point you’re dealing with the amygdala part of the brain that fights for survival. Dan’s first piece of advice for people is to “Breathe!” Breath is the first and only successful way to fight that adrenaline response of fight/flight; you disrupt the reaction and de-escalate anxiety and stress. The long exhale of slow breath changes neurotransmitters and moves you from panic and fear to the conscious moment. He also recommends 10 to 15 minutes of silence. If you need apps for meditating, use them, but otherwise total silence is preferable.

Our breath is the basis of our life, and as the bible says, “God….breathed the breath of life into his nostrils and the man became a living being.” Yahweh, the ancient name for God, also reminds us of the importance of the breath of life as we reverently say the name. Dan believes that God is in all of creation and “that creation is the representation of the fingerprint of God. I meet people where they are at and accept them for who they are. I connect with them and see the God living in me connect with the God living in them. I work to see how we can bring about a rebirth for them. Love is at the center. That is where God is found.”

In closing, we’d like to share Dan’s mission statement, inspired by St. Francis of Assisi: “We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart and to bring home any who have lost their way.”

For more information on Dan Jurek and Pax Renewal Center, please visit https://paxrenewalcenter.com.