As I write this article Australia’s Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 has just concluded.
“What in the world does mental health have to do with relationships?” you ask.
Everything, actually – especially in this time of what has come to be called “social distancing.”
The term itself has bothered me a little, subtly implying that we must cut off all contact with each other.
“Physical distancing” is much more accurate.
When we are cut off completely – voluntarily and involuntarily – from relational contact our mental health suffers.
And so do our relationships.
We all battle negative or toxic thoughts, some of us more than others. Left unchecked, toxic thinking becomes an ingrained pattern in our minds – one that has developed over many years. You would be right in saying it is invariably our default way of thinking.
Science has repeatedly demonstrated that it is our thoughts that determine our behavior, emotions and ultimately, our character.
The South African Psychologist, Dr. Arch Hart summarizes the powerful influence of our thoughts in this way:
“Your thinking determines whether you move toward disease or health, success or failure, achievement or decline. It influences whether you will live a long or short life and whether you will be happy or sad most of the time. It even determines if you’ll get married or whether your sex life will be satisfying.” (Arch Hart, “Habits of the Mind.”)
What Hart is not saying is “just develop a positive mind-set!” Good mental health is certainly enhanced by more positive thinking but we must not delude ourselves with the idea that people who suffer from a genuine mental disorder will have it all solved by being told to “think happy thoughts.”
The Australian National Health Survey revealed that in 2017-2018 4.8 million Australians struggled with a mental or behavioural condition including things such as anxiety related disorders, depression or feelings of depression. This amounts to 20.1% of the Australian population. In other words, 1 in 5 Aussies struggle with some form of mental illness, debilitating them and their relationships, robbing them of a flourishing life.
However, the good news is that through the development of healthier thinking habits, many people can be helped in their struggles. I am not saying that they should stop seeing their counselor or go off their medication. I am saying that their mental health will be greatly enhanced with the development of new ways of thinking, in addition to the treatment they are already receiving.
I should know because I suffer from an anxiety disorder myself but I have been learning the enormous value of changing my mindset. What follows is something of what I have learned and continue to learn.
What is a toxic thought?
It’s a thoughts that says, “I’m no good”, “I’m worthless”, “I can’t do it”, “I will fail”, “I’ll screw it up.” (Basically fill in your own script here – you know what the thoughts are.)
Here are some principles I have found extremely helpful in dealing with my own toxic thinking:
- When you become aware of the toxic thought, take it captive. In other words, acknowledge it and capture it, rather than allowing it to take root in your mind.
- Renounce the thought. For example, tell yourself “That is a lie! That is not who I am.” “That is not what I am going to do.” Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t capture the thought right away. Some really helpful advice I read recently is that it is better to take the thought captive later than not at all.
- When you become aware of a toxic thought, actively replace it with a positive one. Sing a song or remind yourself of an encouraging thing someone said about you. In my case, because I come from a Christian perspective, I find it helpful to remind myself of encouraging and meaningful passages from the Bible. As a mentor of mine has often reminded me, when the negative “tape” (remember those?!) begins, eject it and replace it with a new, more positive one. “Changing the tape/CD/Podcast” should become your mantra.
- I have discovered that one negative thought will inevitably lead to another and you can very quickly spiral out of control. Linked together, these thoughts become a chain of negativity that punishes not only you, but others around you. When I find myself in this situation I consciously pull myself up with the words “I am not going down that trail.” An example of this is when I think of someone who has wronged me or perhaps just did something they are unaware of but I was offended by it. My thinking goes like this: “I am offended by what they just said or did.” “That’s typical of (whoever) – they always do this!” “Remember the time they said/did this to you..?” From there, I usually go into a recital of all the bad things I see in that person, leaving me with a “set” against them. Learning to arrest your thinking before it gets out of hand will require several attempts but over time, I have discovered that by regularly practicing this it will become a habit and you can pull yourself up more quickly.
- Arch Hart recommends putting the thought on trial in the courtroom of your mind and asking it some tough questions. “What evidence do you present to say this thought is true?” “What gives you the right to say that?” “How do you know things will not get better?” (Arch Hart, Habits of the mind.)
- A recent development for me has been to simply tell the toxic thought, “You are not welcome here!”
- I am a great believer in prayer, so when I experience those times when my mind is being bombarded with toxic thoughts (usually when I am tired) I talk to God about it. I say things like, “God – this is not who I am and it is not how You see me. I cannot control these thoughts right now, so please help me. I will rest in You – You are in control. Help me to do my part – I will leave the rest to You.” Prayer may be a foreign concept for some of you reading this but as I have said before in this column – why not try it? My experience is that God does listen to our prayers and you have everything to gain by praying. Many doctors and health professionals acknowledge that we are spiritual beings and we need to give attention to our inner lives. I certainly want to point you in the direction of God but I will not force that. I can only speak from my own experience and I have found prayer works!
The important thing to remember is that all of the above takes time. Developing new habits always does. But don’t forget, you have spent a lifetime developing your toxic thinking so it is to be expected that you will have to work hard to eradicate it.
And always keep in mind the wisdom expressed in Philippians 4:8 – this truly is foundational to developing healthy habits of the mind:
“Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Paul of Tarsus).
Healthy thinking leads to a healthier life and healthier relationships so here’s to healthier thinking!
Woodvale Baptist Church, Perth, W.A.