Ethan Kross, a world-renowned expert at controlling the conscious mind, found himself sinking into a hole of paranoia after receiving a handwritten letter from an angry individual who had seen him talk about his research on TV.
There was nothing controversial about his findings, but the letter writer was upset enough to threaten Kross’ safety. Soon Kross found himself creeping around the house at night with a baseball bat despite having been reassured by multiple people, including police, that public figures receive empty threats all the time and he had nothing to worry about. “But that wasn’t the conversation I had with myself,” he writes in his 2021 book Chatter: The Voice In Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It. “Instead, the despairing stream of thoughts running through my head amplified itself in an endless loop.”
Kross’ impaired quality of life bore out his research conclusion on thoughts and behavior: so much of our quality of life hinges on the conversations we have with ourselves all day, every day.
Experts say we can think up to 4,000 thoughts per minute. Thought by thought, we can build “entire narratives that begin to take on lives of their own, based on assumptions and our overactive imaginations—all because we attend to fears, attend to distractions, attend to worst-case scenarios,” writes Jennie Allen in Get Out of Your Head: Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts.
Because “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7, NKJV), there is a better, more life-giving way.
How can we stop those poisonous corkscrews that affect our mental health and even our physical well-being? How do we grab hold of that “sound mind” we have been given and not let Satan steal our joy and damage our witness?
First, we must interrupt our inner critic.
‘Leave Her Alone’
We think about that rift with a loved one, or how we messed up at work or with one of our kids, and we end up flooded by how bad we feel. Then we think about it on repeat. “We introspect, hoping to tap into our inner coach, but find our inner critic instead,” Kross says.
Just last week I signed my daughter up for her beloved horsemanship camp only to find out the camp was full. Other years there had always been plenty of time to sign up, but apparently post-COVID, not so much. What followed was a one-on-one bullying session with my inner critic, who said things to me I would never dream of saying to a friend. (I once heard a comedian say that if we met someone on the street who said the things we say to ourselves, we’d punch him in the face.) Some studies show that 75% of our thoughts are criticisms—of ourselves. If we let our inner critic run amok, we can fall prey to something psychologists call the automatic negative thought phenomenon, in which our mental default is almost always negative.
Is this the kind of “sound mind” fueled by the love and power Jesus wants for his beloved children? No! Thankfully, we can learn to harness our thoughts and repair our minds, leaning on Jesus’ resurrection power to do so. (This is a starting point. For some, medication is also needed to address mental health.)
We can start by enlisting his help every time we are aware of our inner critic punching us in the face (so to speak).
Author and spiritual director Sharon Brown gave a great tip for this at a writer’s conference. She asked writers to imagine Jesus saying, “Leave her alone”—”her” being the woman who broke open an alabaster jar of perfume and anointed Jesus. Some of those who were there berated her for this act of devotion. Now, “Imagine Jesus telling our inner critic to ‘leave her alone,’” Brown said.
Shut Up, Satan
The enemy is always nearby, hissing lies into our thought streams, including his favorite, “What if … ?”
“With those two little words,” Allen says, Satan “sets our imaginations whirling, spinning tales of the doom that lurks ahead.” A powerful interruption to the whirling and the spinning, according to Allen, is this: “Because God ….”
- What if I don’t have enough money to pay tuition? Because God loves me, I can trust it will work out in some way.
- What if my relationship with my loved one is never mended? Because God is good, I can heal because of his goodness.
- What if the cancer spreads? Because God promises to be with me, he will accompany and strengthen me.
The Mind of Christ
One thing we often leave on the table is the ability to ask for the mind of Christ. “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” says Phillipians 2:5. (See also 1 Cor. 2:16 and Isa. 55:8.) We can ask for God’s mysterious thoughts that go far beyond what our broken, fallen minds can register. Our prayer: “Father, help me to have your mind and your thoughts on this situation.”
5 Little Habits
To help rein in our spiraling thoughts, here are five little habits, that, when practiced regularly, can make a big difference in the quality of our self-talk:
Can you come up with a more generous, measured thought to counteract one that is critical or fearful? For example, instead of jumping straight to “This is going to be an epic failure,” try something along the lines of “I’m genuinely trying my best.” Try to reframe stressful situations as challenging rather than threatening.
- Create Distance
It’s helpful to zoom out from our thoughts and gain distance.
Kross’ research showed that “using your own name, while also employing the second or third person, creates emotional distance because it makes you feel as if you are talking to another person when you are talking to yourself.”
In Kross’ case, instead of asking himself, “Why did I blow up at my coworker?” he asked, “Why did Ethan blow up at his coworker?”
My husband and I tried this on a road trip to Alabama, referring to ourselves as “the driver” and “the passenger.” Of course, we laughed and felt silly, but it also worked.
- Cut the “Shoulds”
“Should'” is one of the most shaming, destructive words we can possibly use with others and ourselves: “I should eat better.” “I should not feel this way.” “I should work harder at this.” “Should” statements trigger guilt and make anxious thought patterns worse. Instead of “should,” try “can”: “I can eat better, and here’s how.”
- Serve Others
A surefire way for me to drive out of a mental pothole is to do something for someone else.
Realizing you have the power to make someone’s day better can keep the gloomy spin cycle from sucking you in. It also gives you something good and purposeful to focus on instead of looping and relooping thoughts.
Have you ever noticed that you feel better after worshiping in church, watching a glorious sunset, or gazing at the waves? That’s because awe is a God-given way to fix our minds on higher things. “Awe is considered a transcendent emotion in that it allows people to think and feel beyond their own needs and wants,” Kross writes.
The good news is that we can reshape and rewire our brains with intentional effort. What we think about is what our brains become, and when we partner with the one who created us we can change fixed patterns. Our thoughts, instead of curling inward, can unfurl toward the One who wants to transform and renew us.