Fieldstone counselor, Jessica Gallina
Our anxious thoughts are spiritually, emotionally, and physiologically powerful. They reveal the nature of our hearts, our loves, our struggles, and what we desire most. More practically speaking, they influence our daily functional and relational behavior. So, the question becomes, “How can we manage our thoughts in a way that honors God, while also considering our creation design as embodied souls as well as how we care for fellow image bearers?” Scripture provides a wealth of wisdom about thoughts and how we can interact with them in healthy ways while providing grace for the journey.
As people, our thoughts flow from our hearts and are sometimes mediated physiologically. There are many elements that affect our hearts’ desires and impact our bodies, including trauma, past positive or negative experiences, and our current circumstances. Many times, anxious thoughts indicate a feeling of being emotionally unsafe or uncomfortable. God wired us for intimacy, safety, and peace; essentially, we were created for wholeness [see Romans 12:2]. If you have experienced relational hurt, church hurt, trauma, or persistent anxiety, you may benefit from doing healing work with a counselor in the areas that underlie anxious thoughts or add complexities to your relationship with God.
Life-long thought work begins in our relationship with God. Our Father invites us to draw close to him and in that closeness, we can be filled by his love. His love will affect our hearts, thoughts, words and actions. We don’t need to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” in the process. Rather, we can lean on him to lavishly experience his love. In doing this, God changes us. Jeremiah 17:7-8 reads, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green.” We often struggle with believing lies about ourselves, others, God or life circumstances particularly when things get difficult, when “the heat” comes1. By planting ourselves near “the stream,” or near God, we can be filled with his goodness and strength to counter the lies.
We can use strategies to recircuit our nervous systems, in the process of having a spiritually and emotionally healthier thought life. In the moment, when you have a thought that you don’t want to have, you might tell yourself, “It’s okay. It’s just a thought. I can use this thought to learn and grow.” If you feel anxious, you might loosen or relax your shoulder muscles and breathe slowly (taking five breaths in and seven breaths out). Although this strategy may seem counterintuitive, meeting the thought with a calm brain and body will help in the moment, and position you to work through the thought long-term.
Once you are calm, you can consider the thought further. Philippians 4:6b-8 provides a helpful guide : “Pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. 7 Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. 8 And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.*” The italicized words in the passage indicate action steps for reorienting and redirecting thoughts.
Begin the process by asking God for what you need, and if you can in that moment, thank him for what is good. If finding good things is hard, that’s okay. You can revisit that another time. From this point, approach the task of thinking about the thought and coming to a conclusion. I am providing a tool2 I use regularly with my counselees, to assist you in doing this. It was developed based upon Philippians 4:4-8, particularly the last verse. The first step is to identify the kind of negative thought you are having. Underneath the chart are examples. The second step helps in determining the reasons you are thinking it and evidence against the thought. Thirdly, you can take all of the information together and come to a conclusion. Lastly, it can be helpful to reflect upon what is still good and true about God, you and/or your circumstance, even if the first thought was true. Once you have engaged with the chart, you may find it beneficial to journal or talk with a safe person about what came up for you that still needs attention as you address what underlies the anxiety.
Please know, dear friend, that as you work through anxious experiences, the Lord your God is walking you through the valley, singing his love over you and holding your hand (Psalm 23:, Zephaniah 3:17, Isaiah 42:6.)
1 See appendix for “Three Trees” diagram: https://www.paultripp.com/how-people-change
Jessica Gallina taught and mentored children and adolescents as an intervention specialist for 12 years, before feeling called to become a biblical counselor.