Last night my cat was stalking a spot on a white wall. There was nothing there, but in his imagining it was worthy of his notice and all his energy. He sat there for a long time intent on fighting his fictional foe. I will be honest, it was highly amusing.
This is not my photo, but the picture is perfect
This did however lead me to wonder if humans are often like that too. What things do we notice which really mean nothing at all? What things do we fixate on, which are entirely imagined? I’m sure there are many and for the anxious mind there are many more.
In my own journey with anxiety I can identify with my crazy cat, I know what it’s like to be consumed with something that’s not there. Although in my case, I would be staring at an invisible spot on the wall which would suddenly multiply to a hundred invisible spots and I would want to chase them all.
In my worst moments, I honestly did believe every thought that came into my mind. It was like handing myself a hundred negative prophesies all at once and believing they were true, instead of something to be tested.
I have learnt a lot since being in my twenties and I’m glad to say that I don’t do this any more. I have moments, but I am more aware when it’s happening and can catch myself before I spend days staring at or giving my attention to something that isn’t real.
What has helped me? Many, many things: quotes, specific bible verses, books, songs, discussions with wise people, seeing a psychologist, medication, improving my gut health and more.
Allow me to give you a few questions to ask yourself before you sit staring at your negative thoughts.
Should I put energy into chasing this thought?
Is this real or a self-made negative prophecy?
Is this helpful?
And my favourite mantra for stopping my anxious imaginings:
Thoughts are not facts
If you are struggling by fixating on unhelpful and negative thoughts or dreamed up catastrophes, let me encourage you to remember this story of my cat. If you can let go of even one fictional foe this week, I will give you a standing ovation.
I had this thought this week… “Maybe you’re just weak” and I had to decide what to do with it.
Do you struggle with unhelpful negative thoughts? During this season we might be confronted with more of them, or perhaps it’s that we’re more aware of them as we are forced to sit with our internal worlds. I thought I’d tell you a little story to provide an example of one of the techniques I use when dealing with unhelpful thoughts, but as you read the ‘story’ remember that life is not a competition of how ‘bad’ we have it over another person. It’s the processes/tools/skills that we learn that help us overcome things, not the size of the mountain we are facing 🙂
I had one particularly awful morning this week. I had a demanding two-year-old, a restless Prep student and a confused Year 3 student all needed my help and attention and man-oh-man I felt the pressure, especially when my son threw an attention tantrum. Bless. It was difficult and my adrenal system was pushed to the max. I’m sure many other people (regardless of family situation) could say they have had similar moments. You know those moments when everything is just so overwhelming and there is noise and there are intense physical and emotional demands and you still have to push on? Yep? It was one of those mornings.
Later in the day, as I talked to God about the morning, I heard myself think “Maybe you’re just weak”. Ouch. Super brutal right? In days gone by I probably would have agreed with that thought and wondered how everyone else seemed to be stronger than me. The spiral would start from there until I’d end up doubting my self-worth and abilites. However, I’ve grown a lot in recent years, so I quickly caught that thought and did this simple internal exchange…
Thought: Maybe you’re just weak.
Question: Jess, is this thought helpful?
Response: Ok, well thank you mind. Moving on.
(Some of you might recognise this as ACT – Acceptance Commitment Therapy)
Let me break the process down a little for you. I have a positive or negative thought which may or not be true. However, regardless of whether it’s true, I ask myself… “Is this thought helpful?”. Will it motivate, encourage, inspire, push me to growth or change? If not, then maybe it’s actually accusatory, full of judgement, guilt, shame, and draining my energy. After questioning the usefulness of a thought, I can then determine if it’s something I should discard or something I need to pay attention to.
It’s amazing how challenging my thoughts with a simple question can release me from a toxic spiral. What I love about this process is that even if the thought is unhelpful, I still thank my mind. I am not judgemental and beating myself up for having the thought, I’m simply acknowledging it and letting it go. I used to struggle so much with that. As I identified negative thoughts, I would judge myself harshly for even having them *cough perfectionist*, which would only cause me to become more and more anxious. Now, I am continually learning how to let go of thoughts that I don’t need, like dropping leaves into a river, sweep them away with the current.
Bible readers will see this same wisdom reflected in 2 Corinthians 10: 4-6 (NIV):
4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 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. 6 And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.
I often read these words or heard sermons about it, but I was never taught what it meant to hold a thought captive or what to do with it. I fought against myself for having the thoughts because I believed that I shouldn’t have had them in the first place. I thought I needed to control them, make them obedient, pray against them – it was awful. Let me suggest that holding a thought captive might actually be about knowing which ones to let go of and which ones to keep. I’ve come to learn that when it comes to thoughts, “captive” is not about pulling it close and examining every aspect of it or desperately trying not to think about it (which only makes you think about it more). For me assessing a thought is about quickly catching it in its infancy and asking that simple question… is this helpful? What’s its source? Is this from God or is it the accuser? You don’t have to fight the thought; you are fighting if you chose to believe it or not. I know this little section is for someone particular and although I don’t know who, I’m writing it just for you to read 🙂 I hope you find peace and release if you have been struggling with how to walk this scripture out, the good news is that it’s not as difficult as we thought. It’s always Good News right?
I know this is an unusual time for us all, so don’t worry, I am fully aware that the thought I had about being weak is not true. However dear reader, don’t focus on whether or not the thought was true, because sometimes thoughts are in fact true. Don’t focus on whether or not the thought was positive or negative, because sometimes positive thoughts can keep us stagnant while negative thoughts can be the gateway for great change, innovation and motivation. Focus instead on whether or not the thought is helpful.
Toxic thoughts are everywhere:
I can’t do this.
I might fail.
I’m not important.
I have nothing to offer.
I never do anything right.
I wish I was more like (insert person’s name here)
This is never going to end.
I can’t see a way out of this right now.
Maybe I’m weak.
Yes, unhelpful thoughts will come, but maybe you just need to say “thank you mind’ and move on.
PS – If this has spoken to you in some way, I highly recommend the book The Happiness Trap by Dr. Russ Harris, it was significant in teaching me how to deal with my thought-life.
I speak peace over you right now
Peace over the fears and thoughts that keep you up at night
Peace over the worries that weigh your heart down.
I speak peace over you right now
Peace over your body and your breathing
Peace over tension in your shoulders and the tightness in your chest.
I speak peace over you right now
I have known the bondage of anxiety
And I know the sweet freedom of peace
So, I will speak it over you just as it was released over me.
I know that your mind is crowded with thoughts right now and you want to chase them all down, but we both know that it’s not possible because you can’t hold onto them long enough. Take a breath and sit with me in this moment, sit with me and bring your uncomfortable feelings; I am not afraid of them, you are safe here. I will not tell you to ‘get over it’ or ‘just stop thinking about it’ and I’ll mentally punch anyone in the head who says those words to you 😉 I understand that it’s not that easy – I’ve got you.
I don’t know your situation, but I will tell you what I know… I know that it’s possible to break out of this mental prison. It’s possible to come out the other side (it really is), however I also know it’s hard for you to believe that right now. I have personally worked for years on my thoughts, fight/flight reactions, breaking down lies and perfectionism while failing, trying again, failing, trying again and again. It is hard work, but it can be done. Maybe I will write more about this one day (ok I will, just for you), but for today, you need to be seen in this moment and told that you can and will survive this. Go read the beginning bit again, change is coming your way. Sit with it today. Sit with it. We’ll talk more later ok?