Most people that know me now would probably describe me as joyful, happy, bubbly, excitable. People probably assume that I was born happy, or that I naturally have an optimistic and sunny disposition. Little would these people know that I was once clinically depressed. My depression plunged me into a deep pit of despair that left me feeling empty, hopeless, and utterly alone. I tried to hide my depression, and I would often have to duck into a restroom to weep before putting on a fake smile to face the world. My transition from depression to joy was not easy, and it was not rapid. Shedding my cloak of despair and choosing joy took years of therapy, prayer, hard work, and painful self discovery.
When Mike spoke on Sunday, he discussed how our thoughts form our words and our words form our actions. The focus of his sermon series has been on making small changes that often lead to a big difference. In our society, this is not welcome advice. We tend to want to make one big sweeping change (or at the most, follow a five step plan), that immediately yields results. We forget that our brain, like our muscles, must be exercised. No weight lifter goes into the gym one day and expects to win a weight lifting competition the following day. We know that to tone and condition our muscles, we have to do repetitive weight lifting consistently for a long period of time before we see the "big" results. Why would we think our thoughts are different? If we have "trained" our brains to think a certain way for years, why would we think that we can simply change the way we think over night?
During the course of my journey, I have learned some tips for capturing the negative thoughts and focusing on the positive. Romans 12:2 gives us hope that we have the power to transform our minds, when it says, "be transformed by the renewing of your mind." The path to spiritual transformation, which sets us apart, begins with the renewing of our mind.
In considering how to renew our minds and transform our thoughts, I must make the disclaimer that this post is not meant to be a cure for severe clinical depression or mental illness. For severe depression and mental illness, a physician's care, and a good therapist are necessary. Sometimes medication is necessary. I would never tell a diabetic to suck it up and get better without insulin, and I would give the same advice to someone struggling with mental illness - if a physician says you have a chemical imbalance requiring medication, you should follow your doctor's advice. However, if you are struggling to gain control over some of your negative and destructive thoughts, these tips may be helpful.
1. Recognize thoughts are just thoughts. We cannot control every negative thought that pops into our head, but we can control how we react to those thoughts. We can ruminate on negative thoughts and lies such as, "I am not good enough", "I am a failure", "I can't do anything right." Or, we can take power from the scripture. 2 Corinthians 10:5 instructs us to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." Negative thoughts can lose their power if we do not fear the thoughts and understand that thoughts do not define who we are and they do not control us. We can be in control of our thoughts and our actions.
2. Take negative thoughts captive. How does one take negative thoughts captive? There is no easy answer. You have to try a number of techniques to see what works for you. One way to respond to negative thoughts is to choose not to focus on the negative thoughts by distracting yourself - read a book, listen to an uplifting song, or call a friend that makes you smile. If you are struggling with worry, an effective technique can be to delay your worry. Tell yourself that you will allow yourself to worry for for five minutes about an issue, but you have to worry on your lunch break. Keep trying to delay your "worry time." When you do make time to worry, set a timer and allow yourself to worry for a full five minutes. Over time, this allows you to better cope with worry and to delay worrying for longer and longer periods of time. One other approach that can be helpful is to try to analyze your thoughts as a third party observer. Ask yourself, "Is this thought true? Is this thought helpful?"
3. Replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts. When we remove negative thoughts, we need to replace those thoughts with positive thoughts. Find a scripture that encourages you, memorize it, and remind yourself of that scripture when you are having destructive thoughts. Look to the Bible and study God's word for truth.
4. Find a friend that can speak positive truth to you. People often worry that they are the only person that has negative thoughts or fears. This leads to shame and isolation. Healing is often found when you find a trusted confidant that will listen to you and speak truth in your life. Find someone who is positive and trustworthy. Seek them out for encouragement when you need it.
5. Get out of your head. Many negative thoughts and worries occur because we are either worrying about the future or reliving the past. Spend time daily focusing on the moment that you are in.
6. Serve others. You will not have to look far to find someone that is suffering or in pain. Serving others helps take the focus off of your negative thoughts and redirects your energy to positive thoughts and actions. God has promised that if you "feed the hungry and help those in trouble, then your light will shine out from the darkness and the darkness around you will be as bright as the noon." (Isa. 58:9-10)
Our church is built on God's promise in Isaiah 58, that we can use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, that we will restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate our community. God can use our thoughts to build us anew, and God can restore, rebuild and renovate our minds.
If you have other suggestions for renovating our thoughts, feel free to share them in the comments.