Our brain can be our best friend or our worst enemy and I’ve experienced it both ways.
One of Jesus’ most famous sayings is found in the gospel of John. Christ declared:
“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10 NKJV, emphasis added).
At the heart of abundant living is physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. What is usually called wholistic health. I have heard much said about the physical and spiritual. But I have not heard nearly enough about the mental and emotional aspects. Unfortunately, mental health still has something of a stigma attached to it. But what is happening between our ears is vital. It forms the foundation for everything else.
The apostle Paul put mental health front and center when he wrote:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:12 NIV, emphasis added).
This wonderful brain that we’ve all been given can either work for us or against us, depending on how we use it. I’m not talking about fleeting thoughts that last a couple of seconds and go away. I’m talking about thoughts that we dwell on, that hang around, that we pay attention to.
Over the years I have personally struggled at different times with anxiety and depression. Mental health has therefore become a very important theme for me. The following are a few points that have helped me along the way.
There is Empowering Thinking that brings peace, calmness, confidence, and hope. It builds you up. And there is Exhausting Thinking that causes anxiety, stress, fear, and discouragement. It robs you of energy and joy.
I’ll look briefly at Exhausting Thinking first:
Exhausting Thought #1 — Catastrophizing.
This is mentally turning a minor thing into a humungous problem. Turning a relatively small thing into a catastrophe in our mind.
For example, what I call “The Pantry Episode.” One morning I discovered a little pile of sawdust on the pantry floor at our house. The first thing my mind shouted at me was “TERMITES!” and all sorts of frightening possibilities quickly assaulted my thinking:
• Was the house going to collapse around us because these horrible bugs had munched through too many timbers?
• How many walls would workers have to tear open to view the damage?
• Would they have to put one of those huge fumigation tents over our house in order to kill the invaders? Embarrassment city.
• How could I possibly pay for the extensive repairs?
• Would my house plummet bigtime in market value?
I quickly found the phone number of an exterminator company and told them to come right away. I spent the next several hours scolding myself for not getting termite insurance. “I’m soooo stupid!”
The exterminator eventually arrived, examined the little particles for what seemed like an eternity, and then casually declared, “It’s not sawdust at all and doesn’t have anything to do with termites.” He then looked up at the wire shelving above and saw a plastic bag of beans. “You better throw this out,” he advised. “It’s full of bugs.” The harmless critters had been dining on the contents and their leftovers had dropped onto the floor below.
My panic had been completely self-induced. It all stemmed from runaway thoughts. A world of trouble swirling inside my exaggeration-prone head.
Exhausting Thought #2 — All or Nothing Thinking.
This is about using absolute words like always, never, nothing. We make a mistake and then we put ourselves down:
“I never do anything right.”
“I always mess up.”
“Nothing I do ever turns out good.”
We’d never treat a friend like that, but we can be unmerciful on ourselves.
Exhausting Thought #3 — Oughts and Shoulds.
These words primarily exist to make us feel guilty. In an article entitled, “The ‘shoulds and oughts’ game,” Marc Freeman writes,
Whose standards are we trying to reach with these "shoulds" that we throw around in our heads so often? Is it some figure from our past who would have done it differently?
Was it repeated messages growing up that told us we aren't good enough as we are? How often when we are saying these things to ourselves do we challenge them?
Of course we ought to obey laws and be moral persons. But apart from those arenas, oughts and shoulds need to be contested and, in many cases, dismissed as lies.
Exhausting Thought #4 — Regrets from the Past.
I have plenty of regrets from the past. And the more I go back there mentally, the more I do myself harm. Feeding mentally on regrets is poisonous to our mental and emotional health.
Few people in the Bible had more regrets than the Apostle Paul.
Before his conversion to Christianity, Paul, known then as Saul, was a notorious terrorist. He struck fear into Christians’ hearts very much like the Nazis struck fear into the heart of every Jew in Europe during World War II.
Listen to what Paul says about himself in Acts 26:
“I threw these believers…into the Jerusalem jail right and left, and whenever it came to a vote, I voted for their execution. I stormed through their meeting places, bullying them into cursing Jesus, a one-man terror obsessed with obliterating these people” (Acts 26:9-11 The Message).
Later, after his conversion, there must have been many nights when Paul had terrifying nightmares about those horrific days. In his dreams he could still hear the screams from mothers as soldiers tore children from their arms. He could still hear the many people who begged not to be killed. He would wake up bathed in a cold sweat, shaking all over, staring wide-eyed into the darkness. He must have been filled to overflowing with regrets.
Thankfully, Paul tells us how he recovered mentally and emotionally. He points to one thing that kept him sane, one thing that kept him going. Listen to what he says in Phillipians:
“I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead” (Philippians 3:13-14 NKJV, emphasis added).
Paul’s “one thing” was to not allow the scenes he so deeply regretted to play over and over in his mind. Paul learned from the past. He asked for forgiveness for the past but then he moved on mentally. It was either that or become paralyzed by depression and self-hatred. I have learned from Paul and others that it is totally unfair to take what we know now and use it to beat ourselves up for what we didn't know sometime in the past.
Exhausting Thought #5 — Anxiety About the Future.
Anxiety often comes from two little words: what if. Our imaginations can have a field day with them:
What if the house burns down?
What if the car blows up?
What if I get hit by lightning?
What if they stop making dark chocolate?
What if Medicare goes broke?
What if…? What if…?
Jesus gave us some very good advice: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26 NIV.)
Imagine 40 sparrows sitting on a utility wire strung about 30 feet up between two large poles in the state of Maine. Sparrow #33 in line is talking to #34 in late October:
33: “I’ve been thinking.”
34: “Yah, what’s up?”
33: “Shouldn’t we have started migrating already?”
34: “Well, the leaves have definitely dropped off the trees.”
33: “If we stay here much longer we could get snowed in, you know. Frozen ground. No food.”
34: “Scary thought alright.”
33: “My stomach’s been feeling pretty queasy lately. Probably an ulcer from migration anxiety.”
34: “Or maybe you ate a bad worm or something. You been snacking on roadkill?”
33: “And look at my tail feather sticking out back there. It’s gonna create a ton of drag.”
34: “Yah, and smog is another problem. Too many cities on the way south. Ever heard about beak rot?”
33: “And the hawks. Those killing machines could take any of us down.”
That conversation doesn’t happen. Sparrows don’t manufacture trouble and stress. No “what if’s.”
Now let’s take a look briefly at some Empowering Thinking:
Empowering Step #1 — Recognize Exhausting Thoughts and Label Them for What They Are.
Just because I think a particular thought doesn’t mean I have to believe it or pay attention to it. Our brains are thought producing machines. They bombard us with all kinds of thoughts all day long. It is the thing brains love to do the most. And our minds can come up with some really crazy, awful stuff. The brain has no built-in filter, no editor, it just makes things up.
So don’t let the exhausting thoughts hook you. Don’t take them seriously. Treat them like birds flying above you in the sky. As one person wisely said, “You can’t prevent birds from flying overhead but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”
Also recognize that exhausting thoughts are not stamped out like a fire, they are crowded out when they are replaced by empowering ones.
Empowering Step #2 — Intentionally Build Positive Memories into Your Life.
Positive memories are like an oasis for the mind. Positive memories are like giving your brain a day at the spa. They give your mind an uplifting place to go when the going gets tough.
For example, our family of three has stopped giving regular gifts to each other at Christmas. Instead we give memorable experiences, which may or may not occur on Christmas Day. Last December, my daughter gave the family a journey to a wonderful sprawling botanical garden (here in Florida). My wife gifted everyone with a trip to watch the sunrise on the beach plus a picnic breakfast. My gift was buying each person a kite and flying them together at a nearby park.
When Exhausting Thoughts pummel our brains, we can replace them by vividly re-living these wonderful experiences in detail.
Empowering Step #3 — Focus on the Present.
The only tangible experience we have is what’s happening right now, this very moment. Staying in each moment mentally as much as possible is key.
One Sunday morning I was very excited because my favorite basketball team, the Boston Celtics, was going to be on TV that evening for the first game in the playoffs. Later that morning my wife reminded me that we had a concert that night as part of the pricey series we had purchased months earlier. Very bad timing.
As the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra played Beethoven, I sat there in our regular balcony seats fuming. Roiling with regret, my mind was back on the game, wondering about the match-ups, the strategy, the score. Suddenly my brain woke up to what I was doing. “Hey dummy. Get with the program! You’re missing a wonderful concert with your wife!” I quickly re-focused and took in the powerful music that wafted up from the stage. It turned out to be a very inspiring evening. I learned later that the game was a boring blowout anyway.
That little incident reminded me that being fully present, living in the moment, is an important pathway to inner rest and calmness. Focusing fully on the present and not letting our minds wander into realms of discontent is foundational to experiencing peace of mind and joy.
Jesus counseled us in Matthew 6:
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (Matthew 6:34 The Message, emphasis added).
Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is yet to be.
I am helped by remembering this brief but compelling portion of a Jewish prayer:
“Days pass, years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.”
Giving ourselves the gift of the present doesn’t mean we never think about the future in order to plan. We just don’t live there. It doesn’t mean we never think about the past in order to draw lessons. We just don’t live there either. Living in the present means that mentally we are focused entirely on right now the vast majority of the time.
A poem entitled Walk Don’t Run by Rob Bell captures well what living in the present is all about:
Walk, don’t run.
Walk, don’t run.
Slow down, breathe deeply,
and open your eyes because there’s
a whole world right here within this one…
Efficiency is not God’s highest goal for your life,
neither is busyness,
or how many things you can get done in one day,
or speed, or even success.
which leads to seeing,
now that’s something.
That’s the invitation for every one of us today,
and every day, in every conversation, interaction,
event, and moment: to walk, not run. And in doing so,
to see a whole world right here, right now.
Notes & References:
 Creation Health Live Guide #2, “Rest At Its Best,” Kim Allan Johnson, Florida Hospital Publishing, p. 55.
Kim Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.
Photo by David Matos on Unsplash
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