When Anxiety Takes Hold of My Thoughts

What if I told you negative thoughts can be healthy? 

Negative thoughts can actually act as a natural self-preservation filter to avoid danger. For example, when my kids ask me to do a backflip on the trampoline, it’s healthy for me to have negative thoughts and tell my kids, “No way!” It’s not an issue of not believing in myself or trusting God enough, it’s a valuable negative assessment to avoid harm and loss.

However, when I encounter overwhelming stress with ongoing disappointments, pressures, or expectations, my negative thinking can end up depleting my self-esteem and confidence. It’s a self-preservation filter on overdrive, and this is when it becomes unhealthy. 

The Apostle Paul knew that we all have negative thoughts and circumstances that can distort our true reality and identity, so he encouraged the churches to practice moving from negative thinking to thrive thinking (truth thinking). He wrote things like, “…think on these things [healthy attributes of life] …” and “set your mind on the things above [where our true identity is sourced and secured] …” (Philippians 4:8; Colossians 1:9 and 3:1-2). 

But the question is, how do we practically do that? While I may not have “the” answer, I’ll highlight some overall understanding and some tips using a “healthy thinking tool” found in our Thrive Workbook, a whole-health guide for building resilient hearts and minds.

Here are some important insights to give context to the experience of racing, negative thoughts:

We’re battling the sensation that it might be true.

When we have a negative thought (stressor), it triggers the threat center of the brain (amygdala) and communicates to the body to focus on fight or flight! The immune system is suppressed and the endocrine system releases the stress hormones to prepare the body for danger.  Our prefrontal cortex goes into high critical and quick thinking, and our nervous system is on edge anticipating danger, loss, and hurt. This ongoing sensation is creating a feedback loop sensation distorting our perspective of time and space, inside and out.

We’re anxious because we know it’s not true.

 Our brain and body algorithm — or “operating system” — is in high gear, creating the experience that “it” is or “it” might be true. Because it feels true, it creates an ongoing negative feedback loop that is mentally, physically, and even spiritually exhausting. Thus, we react because deep down we know it’s not true, it just feels true! We end up battling against ourselves and it’s exhausting.

Negative thoughts get worse when we fight or pray against them.

When we mentally or spiritually fight against negative thoughts by arguing against them, praying or rebuking them, it can actually intensify those thoughts.  If our prayer focus is to “fight, conquer, or breakthrough,” it implies we’re already in loss, defeated, and/or vulnerable.  This fear-focused reaction ignites our fight or flight system and traps us in a negative feedback loop. 

So, what can we do instead as we encounter negative thoughts? 

Here are four helpful tips to move from negative thinking to thrive thinking:  

 1. Be Aware of Potholes

Have you ever driven down an unpaved road? You slow everything down to be aware and avoid damaging your tires or alignment. In the same way, we have to slow down to become aware so we don’t lose traction or our internal alignment as a result of our negative thoughts.

In our Thrive workbook, we list out a variety of negative thinking “traps” (or potholes), which are categorized by Dr. David Burns popular book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. This includes all-or-none thinking, emotional reasoning, should statements, personalization, blaming and more!

What are the traps or “potholes” that seem to be your typical reaction?

For example, when I’m stressed my default is the “all-or-none thinking.” This is when I see life in black or white ultimatums: “Ugh, it’s just not going to work out … it’s all going to fall apart … I’ll never be good enough for _______.”

Because I’ve been down this road before and I know where the potholes are now, I find it easier to drive along with greater comfort and without losing my traction and alignment on what I know to be true.

2. Evaluate the Impact

Sometimes our negative thinking plays out more as feelings than specific thoughts (remember the body sensation aspect). So, when something negative happens, it can trigger the negative feedback loop that points back to our negative thoughts. So, we recognize, review, and realize:

a. Recognize what happened that triggered the internal reaction or feeling.

b. Review the emotions and physical reaction (e.g., anger, sadness, fear, sweating, racing heart, avoidance).

c. Realize which mental traps (potholes) are causing us to lose traction and alignment and feel stuck (e.g., all-or-nothing thinking). 

For example, I can recognize what made me upset (e.g., someone’s rude and critical comments). Then, I review how I feel sad, angry, and irritable with my nerves a little on edge. Then, I can realize my “all-or-nothing thinking” is causing me to feel stuck: “I can never do anything right, why try.”

3. Renew with a New Route

Getting unstuck does not mean we have to respond with “positive” thinking.  Instead, it challenges the thought or weakness and responds with self-compassion and a comfort perspective. 

a. Renew with a challenge: “Is this how my closest friends, my family, and significant other or spouse really sees me? Would I ever say this about someone else? No, never! There’s no evidence it’s true!”

b. Renew with self-compassion: “I may not say or do everything right, I know I’m not perfect and I can grow from mistakes, AND that’s okay! AND it doesn’t cancel me out as a person! AND my friends, family, and significant other/spouse and God NEVER cancel me out!”

c. Renew with God’s comfort: “What does God truly believe about me in this situation?”  

If that’s hard, think of a child who comes to you in tears saying they feel worthless. What would you say to comfort them? What you would say to encourage them? What you end up saying to a child would be the very thing God would be saying to you!

For example, “I know it’s hard! I see your strength and your faith in this. I see so much in you and I believe in you! I love you, and I will always be here for you because you are worth everything to me.  I know you can be successful. Let’s do this together!”

4. Reflect on a New Thought

Lastly, evaluate how this is now making us rethink our thoughts, emotions, and physical responses (e.g., I’m okay, peaceful, calm, breathing easier)?  Then, reinforce this comfort by turning it into a gratitude prayer. 

“Jesus, thank you for always believing in me, staying with me, and continuing to strengthen me with your grace for every part of my journey. Thank you for loving me so much.”

This is a grace-filled perspective and a process for self-compassion, comfort, and gratitude, which activates parts of the brain and body that lead to stress relief, calm and positive emotions (serotonin and dopamine).  At the same time, it’s not a quick-fix cure. We all are unique and some will want more guidance with a professional therapist, and I highly encourage you to take advantage of that. 

Thrive thinking isn’t perfect thinking, it’s practicing resilient thinking. It doesn’t mean we will never have a negative thought again, rather we have the skills to better manage them and not get stuck in a negative feedback loop.

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