Do you struggle with thoughts you don’t want?
If you do, pretend for a moment that you’ve just walked into my counseling office. I introduce myself, offer a handshake, and invite you to take a seat. We chat for a moment and when the time feels right, I dive in and ask, “So what brings you here today? How can I help?”
You begin to tell me about thoughts that upset you, frighten you, or cause you discomfort. They might be connected to anxiety or depression. Perhaps they’re racing thoughts, intrusive thoughts, sinful thoughts, or irrational thoughts. Your thoughts might be filled with unkind words you speak to yourself, questions about your faith, unhelpful predictions about the future, or memories of something bad that has happened to you.
And maybe, if you’re like many people who enter my office, you’re feeling stuck. Perhaps you’ve tried to change your thoughts by pushing them out of your mind, capturing them with God’s Word, exchanging lies for truth, and talking yourself down. Despite your efforts, the thoughts have lingered.
Why are you still stuck? Maybe your approach to changing your thoughts is incomplete. We often need to move beyond cognitive strategies that solely address our minds. We have to consider how our stories, relationships, emotions, and bodies influence our thought patterns as well. Here are five questions to help you explore your unwanted thoughts.
1. When did your unwanted thoughts begin?
It’s difficult to change thoughts by inspecting them in a vacuum. We need context, and we can start by exploring when your unwanted thoughts began. Identify one specific thought you often struggle with. Look at that thought closely. Then, close your eyes and allow your mind to drift backward. What people, memories, or experiences seem connected? Don’t overthink this. Just be curious about where your mind wanders. You might notice something important or unexpected that’s worth discussing further.
Our thoughts emerge from our stories. Many times, they begin in the aftermath of distressing events. They’re often connected to messages people have spoken to us or significant experiences that have stuck with us. Search for the origins of your thoughts and ponder what you find.
2. Who knows the full truth about your struggle?
Have you opened up to other people in your life about your struggle, or have you kept your thoughts a secret? The thoughts we keep in the dark need light and open space. We need empathetic listeners, fellow sufferers, and honest counselors who will hear our uncensored thoughts and help us sort through them.
Go to God. Speak to him honestly. Then, identify one person you can trust. Speak to this person your truest, deepest thoughts. Bringing your thoughts into the light can remove burdens you didn’t even know were there.
3. What emotions do you feel?
Bringing your thoughts into the light can remove burdens you didn’t even know were there.
As you share honestly, pause for a moment and consider how you feel. What emotions come up for you? Do you feel ashamed of your thoughts? Do they bring up sadness, guilt, or fear? Are your unwanted thoughts connected to deep sorrow or constant regret?
Identifying your emotions may seem difficult, uncomfortable, or unnecessary. You might be tempted to push them down or talk yourself out of what you feel. Instead, slow down. Sit with your emotions for a moment. Verbalize them. Feel them. Bring them to God.
It’s likely this is where you feel the pain of your unwanted thoughts most acutely. And it’s in feeling these emotions that you may experience God most closely. He is “near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). He is your refuge in times of trouble (Ps. 46:1). You can stuff your emotions down, or you can let them move you toward the Lord.
4. Where do you feel your unwanted thoughts in your body?
If this question sounds ridiculous or confusing, humor me for a minute. Go back to the thought you often struggle with. Bring it to mind. Sit with it for a moment. Think about the situations it reminds you of and the emotions that come with it. Then consider this question: Where do you feel it in your body? You may feel an anxious thought in your chest or depressed thinking in your gut. An intrusive thought may bring up physical feelings of dread, or a bad memory may flood your body with uncomfortable or distressing sensations.
You are an embodied soul. Your body responds to the content of your thoughts, and your thoughts are influenced by the state of your body. Becoming more aware of the interactions between your thoughts and body can help you form a plan.
Depressed thinking that causes a stomachache might signal the need to visit the doctor. Perhaps you need to slow down and take a deep breath before determining if a thought is helpful or true. Maybe exercising, avoiding caffeine, or prioritizing better sleep would help. Those crushing feelings of panic in your chest may lead you to consider medication. What do you notice in your body? And how does this information prompt you to act?
5. Where is God in your struggle?
As you consider how your thoughts are affected by your story, relationships, emotions, and body, continually return to this question. Where is God? And how is he helping you?
Perhaps you need to slow down and take a deep breath before determining if a thought is helpful or true.
Use God’s Word to examine your thoughts. Let his Word guide your thinking toward all that is true, honorable, pure, and lovely (Phil. 4:8). Let Scripture light your path toward thoughts that remember the truth of the gospel. But don’t stop there.
Remember also that God is with you as you struggle. It may be that he’ll give you what you need to change your thinking. Or it may be that these thoughts are your unwanted thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7). If that’s the case, you can know his strength is especially present with you in your weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). His love for you doesn’t rest on your ability to change or to do better.
If you struggle to feel God’s delight for you, let me help you. Psalm 147:11 says, “the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” Take in a deep breath through your mouth and let it out through your nose. Breathe in again as you remind yourself—the Lord delights. Breathe out again and remember—in those who hope in his unfailing love. Do this about five times. Rest here with God for a moment. Bring this truth into your journey to change your thoughts. Bring this truth into the rest of your day.
The Gospel Coalition