When Thoughts Begin to Spiral There’s One Way off the Merry-Go-Round
[This post (one in a series of seven) relies heavily on material from Jennie Allen's book, Get Out of Your Head: Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts. I've read the book twice. It’s that good. Much of what I share comes from various portions of the book. I've italicized excerpts in the interest of de-cluttering the text from footnotes. You'll see there are quite a few. Hint: you should read the book.]
Our world is in a mental health crisis. Anxiety and depression have become rampant.
What can be done?
I wouldn't dream of oversimplifying the complexities of mental health. Each one of us has different life experiences, different body chemistry, different environmental support systems, and different arrival points in our faith journey.
These nuances mean there isn't one band-aid to slap on every person's mental health situation.
We also need to consider that mental health doesn't just have to be about anxiety or depression. Well-being involves many things. We all want healthy relationships, positivity, empowerment, and hope.
We want to be well in mind, body, and soul.
There isn't a silver bullet to accomplish all this. Still, there is one strategy that we can employ on our journey toward abundant living. There is one truth that applies to every single person on this planet. This truth is a game changer. And it can change the game for the better.
Fun fact. We can have 30,000 thoughts in one day. So, if we have a sixteen-hour day, that means we may think 31 thoughts per minute.
This fact recalls an image of Winnie the Pooh tapping his forehead and saying to himself (like it hurts), "Think, think, think."
Friends, we think a lot of thoughts. When those thoughts are unhealthy, that can become a problem.
According to author Jennie Allen, there is "one thought that holds the power to interrupt our spirals and bring peace to our mental chaos." We all have chaotic thought lives. These thoughts can lead to wild emotions. Which, in turn, can drive how we behave. These behaviors can affect our relationships and ultimately propel us further down an unhealthy spiral.
The truth is: How we think affects how we live.
"This is what I know: while we may not be able to take every thought captive in every situation we face every day, we can learn to take ONE thought captive and, in doing so, affect every other thought to come. So, what is the one thought that can successfully interrupt every negative thought pattern?
I HAVE A CHOICE.
The singular interrupting thought is this one:
I have a choice."
The apostle Paul wrote this in his letter to the Corinthians:
"We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ." 2 Cor 10:5 MSG
Joshua 24:15 says: "…choose for yourselves this day…."
The point of Scripture is that we have a choice and God-given tools for when we're having trouble getting off a mental merry-go-round.
The ability to choose is like any other kind of asset or strength. There are things we can do to foster it, to help it.
The first thing we can do according to Allen is––
WE CAN HOLD SPACE FOR SILENCE.
"In the stillness and quiet, not only do we connect with God, but we are also able to more clearly identify what is wrong. Recognizing our spirals and naming them is the first step in interrupting them."
It's easy to fall prey to the idea that it's better to keep busy when something is bothering us. "We'll feel better if we stay distracted." But the truth is this: the only way we will feel better and stay better is when we recognize that only God will satisfy us.
The devil doesn't like it when we come close to God. So, it makes sense that the apostle nestled the verse "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." right next to "Come close to God, and He will come close to you."
Allen says it this way, "To put it plainly, all hell is against us meeting with Jesus."
The devil isn't our only obstacle to time with Jesus. We can easily self-sabotage. I was convicted when I read a few of Allen's reasons we may not want to spend time with God.
We don't want to be put to work. (There may be someone we need to forgive or a promise we need to follow up on.)
We don't want to be asked to change. (There may be something we need to repent of, like spending more time on social media than with family.)
We're afraid. (We may be fearful that we'll find out we're alone in the world. We're scared that we may reach out to God and be met with a big, fat nothing.)
In summary, Allen writes:
"Behind every one of these fears is a lie: I cannot face God as I am. All we can see at first is the mess. Here's the truth: we are messed up, every one of us. Which is exactly why we need time with God alone in the quiet, where we can hear His healing voice. We have a choice between chaos and quiet, between noise and solitude with God, between denial and healing."
Bible teacher Charles Stanley put it this way:
"When we take time to listen to what God has to say to us, we will see how much He loves us and wants to help us through every situation in life. He gives us the confidence to live extraordinary lives in the power of the Spirit and grace."
When we take time to be with God, He gives us the weapons we need to fight for the battle of our minds. "We get to rewrite that pattern of thinking while taking back the power He has given us."
Mental health professionals call this cognitive reframing. Last week, I was in serious need of it.
When our children were small, we read books. One of them came to mind the other day, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
I was in a funk. The further the day progressed, the more it seemed my mental spiral was gaining speed.
A passing thunderstorm had not been kind. A sentimental tree did not survive, outdoor items were long lost, and the porch took a hit. The cherry on top was a sick puppy. At the risk of sharing too much information, I'll just say that the little shaver had more going out of his body than what was going in.
I was tired. I was discouraged. I was sad, and I was lonely.
The day that was supposed to be a "pal around day" for my sweetheart and I quickly morphed into an emergency response day.
I had complete peace regarding every emotion I was feeling. Until the feelings wouldn't leave.
At a certain point, I began to feel conviction rise within me. I knew we were fortunate. I knew it was all OK.
But I became Alexander. I got stuck. I chose to stay in my terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.
Has that ever happened to you? That thing that becomes the mental merry go around?
The anger you feel toward your spouse.
The jealously you harbor toward a coworker.
The low self-esteem that keeps picking at you.
The lack of forgiveness toward a parent that failed you.
Mental merry-go-rounds are nasty places to spend an entire day. But what is even more sobering is when we discover we've been spinning for many days, months, maybe even years.
Sometimes we just get stuck in those terrible, horrible, no-good places.
But there's hope. There is only ONE thought we need to think of to get unstuck.
We have a choice.
The first choice we can make is the decision to find time, any time to be still with God.
It may be in the shower.
It may be in the car.
It may be when our head hits the pillow at night, and we talk to Him.
These may be the places we start, but we can ask Him to make us hungry for more. Make us want more of Him…in more ways… for longer periods.
Next week we'll learn about another strategy that we can employ when our toxic thoughts try to overtake us. In the meantime, let's pray: