If you struggle with long-standing fear and anxiety, your thought habits probably need a tune-up or perhaps a significant overhaul.
One of the first steps in getting control of your thinking is to notice the thoughts you are already thinking. If you feel distressed, ask yourself, “What am I thinking right now?” And then ask yourself, “Why am I thinking that?”
Listen to what your mind is telling you. When you begin asking yourself why, you may understand better some of the circumstances that led you to develop those thought habits.
HOW YOUR LIFESTYLE AFFECTS YOUR THINKING
How much sleep did you get last night? What did you have to eat for your last meal? Those and many other factors definitely impact not only your feelings but also your thoughts.
You can probably think of times when a problem seemed overwhelming in the evening but seemed much more manageable after some hours of sleep. These are some factors that will affect your thinking:
• What you eat and drink. Your brain needs a regular supply of water, glucose, amino acids, and healthy fats to function well. Drinking plenty of water and eating a balanced diet of mostly unprocessed foods make it easier to choose your thoughts.
• Physical exercise. Your brain needs oxygen, and physical exercise improves oxygen delivery to your whole body, including your brain. The endorphins that increase with exercise also help your brain think more positively.
• Rest. A mind that’s tired for any reason—lack of sleep, stress, or mental or emotional overwork— cannot think as clearly. Rest improves both your mood and your ability to control your thinking.
• People around you. Spending time around positive people will help your mind notice positive things and think positive thoughts. Your family, friends, and coworkers affect how your mind functions.
Notice how your mind thinks differently depending on these factors. If you’re tired and hungry, you may think, “I’ll never get this project completed,” or “Everyone thinks I’m a failure.” After some sleep, a brisk walk, a healthy meal, or a good talk with a friend, you may think, “This is a huge challenge, but I’m going to make steady progress,” or “That wasn’t a smart decision. I can learn from it and do better next time.” See the difference?
HOW TO THINK POSITIVELY
When your thought habits are negative, fearful, anxious, worried, or—let’s face it—lazy, making the effort to focus on positive thoughts may seem impossible. But it’s not. It doesn’t matter how bad your circumstances are; there are always positive things to think about.
Here are a few categories of good things to think about:
• People you care about and who care about you. I find it hard to remain upset when I think about spending time with my four grandchildren.
• People you admire. Biographies of successful people, stories of people who overcame significant obstacles, people whose character you admire.
• Others who need help. Getting your mind off yourself is one of the best ways to lift your spirits and stop worrying. There are always people in need. Get involved in a cause you care about.
• What God has done. One of the most important benefits of my journal has been to look back and see where God did something wonderful for me. Hearing what He’s done for others can also lift your faith and encourage you that He can do the same for you.
• God’s Word. Reading, meditating on, memorizing, and studying God’s Word is the most high-quality mental food you can get.
Perhaps you’re saying, “Do I have to do these things?” That would be like saying, “Do I have to eat every day?”
We’re talking about good mental input so that your mind can be resilient, positive, hope-filled, and fully alive. If you consistently feed your mind high-quality nourishment, it may begin to taste like dessert.
HOW TO CHOOSE WHAT TO THINK
Take charge of not only what you think about but also of the very thoughts you think regarding certain topics. Here are some positive characteristics to cultivate as you develop new thought habits:
• Consider the choices you have. You have options about how to respond to even the worst circumstances. If your job is too stressful, you can choose to set boundaries at work, look for a different job, optimize your stress-management outside of work, or develop your own business. If your spouse is ill, you can choose, instead of worry, to focus on finding the best care and join a support group. Your choices may not be the ones you want, but you always have choices.
• Grab on to joy and hope. You can acknowledge the worst while still placing your mental focus on things that are positive. When your finances are hit hard, be grateful for your health that allows you to look for other income. When a close relationship is broken, cling to the family or friends you still have. You can thoughtfully learn and grow your character from any difficulty.
• Take positive action. Your fear and anxiety will always lessen when you take action steps in a positive direction. You may not be able to change much, but focusing energy where you can take action will lessen your sense of hopelessness and improve your psychological well-being. It may not be easy; those actions may include changing your lifestyle, asking for forgiveness, getting some help, or participating in spiritual warfare.
• Determine God’s view of your circumstances. Read His Word, pray, and get input from other godly people. Then think, speak, and otherwise focus on what God says about your problem. God may direct you to make some significant changes in your lifestyle or your thinking or to take some other action in cooperating with Him. When you’ve done what is in your power to do, remaining focused on His viewpoint helps you maintain a position of trust, hope, and resilience.
I challenge you to practice thinking in these ways. Speak them out loud when you’re alone and to others. Write them in your journal. Your brain’s computer software will update to run in a positive direction more naturally as you take these steps.
Dr. Carol Peters-Tanksley has practiced medicine for more than twenty-five years and is board-certified in obstetrics-gynecology and reproductive endocrinology. She received her medical degree from Loma Linda University, where she completed an ob-gyn residency. She also obtained a doctor of ministry degree from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She makes her home in Austin, Texas, where she enjoys being Grandma Carol to four wonderful grandchildren. This passage is an excerpt from her book Overcoming Fear and Anxiety Through Spiritual Warfare.