Toxic thoughts. What a strange idea – that we could be poisoning our minds from the inside out. And yet, what else can we call it, when we find ourselves caught up in cycles of anger, anxiety, unforgiveness, cruelty, helplessness… the list goes on. It’s so easy to feel helpless when we feel our brains start to turn in this direction and to resign ourselves to the pattern, but to do this is to accept a life that is less than the one God intended for us.
He has given us our minds and emotions, and with them, the ability to regulate our thought lives. He has given us a spirit of “power and love and a sound mind.” (2 Tim 1:7) Forgive me, but I don’t think that this includes cycles of sin or pain that are destructive to ourselves and others. Indeed, scripture directly contradicts that idea – “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Phil 4:8). This doesn’t mean we are not allowed to experience negative thoughts or emotions! But we get to choose what to pay attention to. If some thoughts are toxic, then these scriptures are the medicine!
When we have a thought that is linked to emotion, certain neurons fire in our brain, along a particular “route” called a neural pathway (literally, the particular axons – nerve fibres – along which the neural impulse passes). If the same stimulus is linked to the same emotion repeatedly, the pathway is strengthened, like a path through grass that animals have walked on over and over, and the response becomes automatic. For example, if I constantly have negative interactions with a family member, soon my brain will start to produce feelings of fear, anger or anxiety just in response to thinking or talking about that person. It’s become a habit. In general, this is good – it teaches toddlers not to touch hot or sharp objects, teenagers to be circumspect in romantic relationships, and adults to be able to drive without constantly consciously remembering how to change gears! But when the emotion causes us to avoid someone or something that we need to deal with or be on good terms with, it becomes a very problematic response.
But our minds can be renewed. Astoundingly, this means that in some cases where a part of the brain that allows patients to see or hear has been damaged, the brain can create a new pathway that circumvents the damaged section and restores part or all of the lost sense! And in terms of toxic thoughts, it means that we can exchange the bad neural pathway for a good one.
So how do we go about making this “sound mind” a reality? Well, I don’t believe that we can – not on our own. Don’t get me wrong, I believe it is entirely possible and desirable to live a life where negative thoughts don’t control us! What I mean is that we need help, and help that no human can give. As we follow the steps below which allow us to build a disciplined thought life (and it should be disciplined – scripture speaks about “taking captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” – 2 Cor 10:5) we need to do it in submission to, and relying on, God. He is the one who transforms us by “renewing our minds.” (Rom 12:2) It’s not a switch that we flip, but a process in which we have to consistently seek Him. We also need to know that other people are not responsible for our emotions – we each are responsible to each other in the way that we behave, but we are responsible only to and for ourselves for how we respond to others. Other people can be held accountable for their behaviour, but I have to take responsibility for my thought life.
ONTO THE STEPS!
The first stage in changing a negative pathway is to recognise it. Before doing anything, we need to be aware of what we are thinking so that we can identify a potentially harmful thought without guilt or shame. Being able to do this allows us, at this point, to go before God. We can be honest with Him – He made us and He knows us better than we know ourselves. We need to be able to say, “God, I’m worried (or angry, or resentful, or really afraid!), please help me.”
Once we have recognised a negative thought, it’s often helpful to examine it. If you’re unsure where it’s coming from, pray for revelation. Pray for wisdom to get to the bottom of it. Dig in to figure out what has caused this response in you. It can help to write things down at this stage, as you ask yourself what impact this is having in your life, when it started, and how you are going to work to break its hold over you. It’s also helpful to have someone to talk to – someone who loves you and will let you speak without judgement or condemnation.
Lastly, identify the positive thought-habit that you want to put in place of the negative. Again at this stage, ask God for His wisdom for renewal in this area. You might want to replace resentment with gratitude, anger with love, or anxiety with faith.
The last step is the hardest – you have to repeat the process over and over again, every time you notice your negative emotions being triggered. Every time that person’s name comes up and you feel that resentment, you need to take it to God, turn away from it, and intentionally focus on God’s grace and love for that person, for you, and for the world, or on all of the positives they bring into your life, or simply on forgiving. Whatever the thought is, recognise it, know that it doesn’t have to control you, and exert your power to take your thoughts captive. You can do it. Your brain is malleable – it takes time, but the response that you practice will become automatic, replacing negative subconscious responses with life-giving ones.
Some estimates have the number of our thoughts each day at around 60 000. Why not make them good ones?