We can help ourselves to remain inwardly restful by learning to distinguish between helpful and harmful thinking. A short list of harmful thoughts could include exaggeration, catastrophizing (focusing only on the worst imaginable explanation), generalization (one problem means everything is a problem), self-deprecation, forecasting (if today is bad, tomorrow will be worse), and distortion.
In order to avoid getting drawn into harmful mental pathways, we need to learn to not take all thoughts equally seriously. Human beings tend to treat thoughts as significant for two reasons:
- If we watch a scary movie, we know it isn’t real because it is outside of ourselves. Our inner thoughts are very different, however. They are part of us, they exist within our heads, which makes them harder to ignore. The truth is that our thoughts don’t necessarily equal reality at all, any more than the movie. Thinking is an ability, rather than a reality. Thoughts can be only thoughts.
- We figure that if our brain took the time to generate the thought, it must have done so for an important reason. But we all know that our brains can produce thoughts that are serious or nonsense, useful or useless, sane or crazy, rational or absurd. Rather than saying to yourself, “If I think it, it must have some validity,” tell yourself, “There’s another thought, it may deserve my attention, or it may not.” The fact is that our brains are thought producing machines.
The following list contains several additional keys to maintaining a peaceful, restful mind:
- Teach your mind to stay on a life-giving path by regularly practicing a positive mental habit in a variety of situations, starting with the least difficult and expanding from there. We can develop pathways of peace for our brain to revert to when challenges to rest come our way.
- Learn from the times when you did succumb and allowed circumstances to dictate your response. Ask yourself, “Why did that happen? What could I have done differently? What can I learn for the future?”
- If possible, reduce exposure to the circumstance that triggered your negative thinking until your mind can get back onto a more restful track. For example, if the new is giving you anxiety, take a break. Give your mind rest from things that trigger strong emotions.
- Invite God to actively help shift your thinking toward inner rest. In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, we read this promise: “You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.” (Isaiah 26:3) Memorizing scripture and storing up God’s promises give us the wherewithal to overcome debilitating thinking. The apostle Paul also offers the following advice, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:4-6)
- Paul calls on us to subject every thought to the filter of whether or not it reflects Christ’s principles and his desires for us. Get rid of negative thoughts by crowding them out. Mentally shift focus. Starve bad thoughts by turning your attention to more healthful ones. This replacement technique becomes easier if you proactively make positive “thought deposits” ahead of time by engaging in activities such as Bible study and prayer. Negative thoughts eventually fade if we don’t dwell on them or give them credence.
- Check in with a family member and/or trusted friend regarding persistent, anxiety-producing thoughts. Ask, “Am I thinking straight here?” In isolation, distorted thinking can become even more distorted and keep us at arm’s length from peace.
- Recognize that some situations are so impactful that they overwhelm our ability to sort out our thought processes at the time. Such intense circumstances hook into our feelings at a deep level and short-circuit our ability to stand back and choose a different mental pathway until sometime later. In their book, The Resilience Factor, authors Karen Reivigh, PhD and Andrew Shatte, PhD, comment, “In some cases, events are so severe that your reactions are driven by the event itself, not your beliefs about the event. When a loved one dies, the emotions that follow largely stem from the tragedy itself, not from one’s interpretations of the tragedy.”
- Be aware that some poisonous circumstances can exhaust our ability to sustain a life-giving thought pattern, and we may need, therefore, to carefully consider making a change. A horrendous boss or an abusive spouse can bombard our brains with such intense negativity that our own thought processes get distorted and we start to believe their terrible untruths. In such intense cases, we need to take appropriate action to restore our mental well-being, which may include seeing a mental health counselor.
We hear much about the need for bodily rest, but not nearly enough about inner rest for the mind. The quality of life we desire, and that God desires for us, will be determined mostly by “what is happening between our ears.” Paying attention to this inner world and learning how to bring it under control is one of the most impactful things we can do to discover new depths of calmness and peace.