Many of us may be struggling with stress and anxiety related to issues surrounding COVID-19 and the uncertain times in which we find ourselves. Pathfinders Pastoral Care Ministries wants to offer some specific strategies to help you effectively handle feelings of stress and anxiety.
Realize it’s a normal reaction to feel anxious now, but when it comes to battling anxiety, it’s crucial to understand that your thoughts and thinking patterns play a significant role in shaping your struggle. Your thoughts can affect your physiology, your emotions, and your actions. That’s why Romans 12:2 instructs us “to not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is - his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
Thinking, as defined in Webster’s Dictionary, means to conceive, to reflect, to believe, “to exercise the mental faculties so as to form ideas and arrive at conclusions.” We all have thoughts constantly. Your brain is a never resting thought-machine that is continually interpreting input from all your senses – what you see, hear, feel, and smell affect what you think and believe. Here are some key points to remember…
Your thoughts are powerful. Think of what happens when you see a bee hovering around your head. Your “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in immediately, your heart rate increases, and adrenaline is released throughout your body. Your thought triggers your instant physiological response.
Your thoughts lie, especially during times of anxiety. You don’t have to believe every thought you have. Certain types of inaccurate thinking are commonly reported by anxious people, including:
All or Nothing Thinking - Sometimes referred to as black/white thinking. When wrestling with this type of thinking, you see things as all one way or all the other way, with nothing in-between.
Disproportionate Weight - When you’re anxious and depressed, you often give disproportionate weight to things, seeing them as bigger than they really are. Things that are relatively minor in nature become “huge” – at least in your thoughts.
Fortune Telling - Your thinking patterns during this tough time can fall into the trap of believing that you can predict the future. Usually, you “play the movie forward” to an ending that is not positive. You can come to believe that things just never work out for you. In reality, sometimes things will work out well for you, and sometimes they won’t. You are not that different from everyone else who has ever lived. The good doesn’t last forever – but neither does the bad! You cannot predict the future – stop trying; you’re just setting yourself up for misery.
Hyper-Control - In this mindset, you can fall into the flawed thinking that you can always control your external circumstances and avoid the pain, danger, and bad things. You embrace the myth that says, “if I do X, Y will happen.” While positive actions generally do bring positive results, they don’t always. Sometimes you do all the right “X’s,” and the right “Y’s” don’t happen. The truth is, you only control the “X’s.” Seeking to control things over which you really have no control magnifies your frustration and sense of hopelessness.
Every time you have a thought, your brain releases chemicals.
Your thoughts matter, your thoughts are powerful, and your thoughts are very often inaccurate. In the best seasons, your thoughts lie – when you’re in the midst of a struggle with anxiety, you cannot trust your thoughts.
Here’s a helpful formula to help understand the relationships between our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions:
Thoughts + Feelings/Emotions = Actions/Behaviors
What you think and how you feel pretty much dictate what you do.
Think of this as a mathematical formula, like 1 + 1 = 2. If you change any one of the numbers, the rest of the formula has to change as well to remain accurate. So, what can you do to change your thoughts, feelings, and actions? When it comes to thoughts, feelings, and actions, it’s important to examine which of those we have the most control over.
Let’s consider how much control you have over your thoughts. You can exercise control over your thoughts or least your response to them. As previously mentioned, you don’t have to believe every thought you have. Especially during times of anxiety, it’s important to challenge your thoughts.
When you have an upsetting thought, stop and ask yourself if that thought is true. In a sense, you want to play out a courtroom drama in your head, acting as the prosecutor, and questioning your thoughts. “Is what I’m thinking really true? How do you know it’s true? What evidence supports this thought?” Sometimes it’s helpful to consider the exact opposite of the troubling thought.
Let’s be clear about one thing, though. You are not seeking to convince yourself that everything is okay when everything may not be okay. This isn’t about psyching yourself up or rallying a cheer-leading crowd to “speak your wellness into existence.” It’s not that positive thinking is bad or unhelpful, but you cannot “positive think” your way out of anxiety. It’s about accurate thinking. Accurate thinking will be very different from what you’re likely experiencing in the midst of an anxiety battle.
In addition to accurate thinking, you must also practice spiritual thinking. 2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us to “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.” Spirit-directed thinking is a process in which your spirit becomes empowered by the Holy Spirit, uses Godly principles to direct your will in an intervention process to manage your thinking. A negative thought needs to be replaced with a Godly one or it will return and, often, with more strength. Philippians 4:8 gives us a list of Godly things to think about; “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.”
As you change your thinking patterns, your thoughts and actions will change, as well.