Reprogramming Toxic Thoughts (which generate toxic emotions)

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The Bible often refers to the heart as the seat of emotions and also the part of us that generates thoughts and beliefs (Mark 2:8, Luke 5:22), and God tells us that we are to guard our hearts “above all else”, for it is the “wellspring of life” (Prov 4:23).

But how do we do that?

1) Recognize that thoughts are real, physical things.

  • Your body has to translate a thought or idea into a real thing in order for it to be stored in your brain.  Brain cells, or neurons, look like trees.  Thoughts and memories get stored in these neurons, and as you accumulate more information, the branches of those trees get bigger.
  • Fear and anger both trigger fight-or flight stress hormones, which, short term, can lead to sweating, shortness of breath and a rapid heart rate.  Over time, however, chronically elevated stress hormones can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, insomnia, sexual dysfunction, anxiety, constipation, diarrhea, immune dysfunction, depression, and even cancer.
  • Depression has a number of physical side effects, including a lower threshold for pain, chronic fatigue, decreased interest in sex, decreased appetite, and either insomnia or hypersomnia.
  • Anxiety, or worrying, can have effects very similar to chronic fear.  Long term effects include immune suppression, digestive disturbance, tense muscles, heart disease, and memory loss, in addition to those listed under fear and anger.

This is why your thoughts deserve attention – what you think about becomes a part of your brain, and sets off a cascade of physiological effects throughout your body.  There’s no such thing as “just a thought”!  Solomon said, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Prov 23:7).

Therefore, the next step is to identify your specific enemy:

2) Become aware of what you’re thinking about.  Stop and listen to your internal dialogue.  What are you telling yourself?  What kinds of emotions are you experiencing as a result of those internal statements?

  • This might take practice.  Sit down in a quiet space and stay there until your mind quiets down.  Then ask yourself questions in order to follow a train of thought to its root.
  • A few examples:
    • I feel (an emotion: anger, fear, depression, anxiety, etc).  Why?  Where does this emotion come from?  How long has it been there?
    • What is it that I am fearing?
    • What is it that I am upset about?
    • What is it that I am thinking?
  • Continue to ask yourself “why” to the responses of each of these questions until you come up with a statement that involves only you; nobody else.  These are the core issues that you can take to the next step. Examples:
    • I believe that I will only be loved if I am perfect or easy to deal with.
    • I believe that I will fail at everything I do.
  • Sometimes it’s helpful to know where these stem from, what event in our lives allowed these lies to take root, but sometimes it isn’t necessary.  You will most likely know when this is or is not important.  If you feel you need an answer to this question, stick with it until you get one.  Don’t be afraid to seek professional help to unravel these questions if you need to – that’s what counselors are there for!

Now, for the next step – the Bible tells us that we are 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” (2 Cor 10:5).  This means we are not powerless to control the thoughts we think.  We get to pick what we think about!  Like wild animals, running through our yard, we can cage up our thoughts.  Therefore:

3) Choose to accept or reject your thoughts, based on whether they are helpful or harmful to you.  This is a conscious decision.

  • When you identify a thought as being harmful to your well-being, rebuke it, out loud.  Refuse to accept it.
    • Thoughts become words; that’s why Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matt 12:34).  The reverse is also true; what you confess with your mouth eventually makes its way into your heart (Romans 10:9).

But once you have done this, you must rapidly replace the negative thought with something positive (and true) – otherwise, you will eventually be overcome, and “the final condition of that man is worse than the first” (Matt 12:45).  Therefore we must:

4) Reprogram the toxic thought with the truth.

  • The Bible says: “Do not conform any longer 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” (Romans 12:2).
  • You renew your mind with the Word of God (Eph 6:17; 2 Tim 3:16).  This means you must find the specific promises to counteract the particular lie you are believing, and speak them out loud!  
    • If you lack confidence, find the verses that tell you your identity in Christ.
    • If you believe you are not loved, find the verses that say you are.
    • If you believe you are being cheated or slighted, find verses that promise justice.
    • If you struggle with finances, find verses that promise prosperity.
    • If you struggle with illness, find verses that promise health.
    • If you struggle with anxiety, focus on verses that promise comfort and peace.
    • If you don’t know what decision to make, focus on verses that promise direction.
    • If you feel the world is against you, focus on verses that promise favor.
    • If you struggle with fear, focus on verses that remind you of God’s faithfulness and the fact that He is worthy of trust.
    • If you deal with depression, focus on verses that promise you the joy of the Lord.
    • If you feel impotent, focus on verses that promise power.
    • If you have unmet physical needs, focus on verses that promise provision.
    • If you feel threatened, focus on verses that promise safety.
    • If you feel like a failure, focus on verses that promise success and victory.

(I recommend you scour the Bible for your own promises, because the verses you find on your own will mean the most to you – but I can also provide you with lists of verses addressing each of these issues to get you started.)

As you begin to reprogram your mind with the Word of God, your faith will grow, because “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17).  But it won’t happen overnight.  The Word of God is like a seed (Matt 13:22-23), and seeds do not spring up immediately after they are planted – rather, they come up “first the stalk, then the head, and then the full kernel in the head” (Mark 4:28).  Because of this, realize that you will need to tell yourself the truth for some time before it begins to take root and grow.  But it will bear fruit in time, and the fruit of the Spirit are the positive thoughts you want: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” (Gal 5:22-23).

5) Every time a toxic thought encroaches in your life, repeat steps 2-4.

  • If it is a lie that you have already identified and rebuked, simply use the faith that you have cultivated to extinguish it (Eph 6:16).
  • If it is a new lie, identify the lie, find the scriptures that counteract it and tell yourself the truth from the Word of God until the seed takes root in your heart, springs forth and bears fruit.
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