Do you ever find it hard to focus and think clearly? Does it feel like your brain is a chaotic mess?
On day 31 we discussed the power of thankful thinking and how to make that a habit. After that, I want to look at how our minds become chaotic and how we can use deep thinking to become more thankful.
This issue became very personal for me recently. My family received some news that triggered a spark of chaotic thinking that quickly unraveled months of discipline and focus. I woke up one day and couldn’t string together two coherent thoughts. I wound up taking a mental health day because I literally couldn’t think well enough to do even the most basic of tasks.
It was around this time when I heard Dr. Caroline Leaf describe chaotic thinking as the enemy of mental health. She compares deep thinking with overthinking, “Overthinking essentially taxes your ability to think deeply about any one thing, impeding your ability to examine and understand information.”
She goes on to say,
“Overthinking can put your brain and body into negative stress, which can result in feelings of anxiety, depression, and fear, and may even cause panic attacks. In fact, ruminating on negative thoughts is one of the biggest predictors of mental ill-health.”Dr. Caroline Leaf
Wow. That described me on that day.
How do we move from chaotic thinking to thankful thinking?
I’ve discovered at least six steps we can take.
Step 1: Practice deep thinking to replace chaotic thinking.
Deep, focused thinking is not only better for our productivity, it also benefits our brains. It creates and reinforces new neural pathways.
Picture it like this: chaotic thinking is like following the meandering pathways that emerge and disappear in a jungle or thick forest. Deep thinking is the process of creating a reliable road through the same jungle. It’s hard work and requires maintenance or the road will be overtaken by the vegetation.
One of the best methods for learning deep thinking is to become a detective with your own thoughts. Whether you use the “5 Whys” method or the “Ask, Answer, Discuss” method, the idea is to interrogate your own thoughts like a master sleuth. I like to put on my Sherlock Holmes hat. I also find it helps to put on some music and eliminate distractions.
In the case of my recent episode with chaotic thinking, I started by asking these questions:
- Why am I feeling like this? What happened that led me to this place?
- What’s the worst thing that might happen if my fear gets realized?
- How is this making me feel?
- Where am I experiencing this in my body?
- How might I see these facts from a different perspective?
- What is a new belief I can embrace?
This process takes time and discipline. You might even need to find your “Watson”—a friend, pastor, or counselor—to help you stay focused as you ask yourself these questions.
Step 2: Become aware of your chaotic emotions.
Notice how I included questions about my emotions and my body. Since thoughts have literal consequences in our bodies, being able to recognize them gives you the power to change the thoughts which will transform your physical and emotional reactions.
Paul teaches the Corinthian church about how to do spiritual battle against the false and negative thoughts that lead people astray. The devil loves nothing more than to keep believers confused and distracted. But when we are focused and deliberate, we can accomplish mighty things.
“We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ.”—2 Cor. 10:4-5 NLT
In my case, I recognized that I allowed myself to pray less and become obsessed with “what if” negative thoughts. Gradually, I began to feel depressed and hopeless. While it was actually irrational, it took a friend to help me stop the ruminating thoughts.
Step 3: Document your thoughts over time.
Journaling (written or audio) can be one of the best ways to keep track of how our thoughts develop. For example, the process of writing is an example of deep thinking. Writing calls on many parts of your brain, therefore, you begin to connect neural pathways that create new roads out of the chaos.
For instance, the deliberate practice of remembering and gratitude are two ways to accomplish this. After writing down what is happening currently, one of the best things we do is reflect upon truths that are bigger than our current reality.
Step 4: Program your listening list today.
When I’m in the deepest of funks, I find that listening to sermons or songs can be one of the best ways of escape. If I’m in a state of true mental chaos, my mind can’t focus enough to read, but I can listen, especially to a good storyteller or a song.
I’ve prepared a playlist on Spotify that helps and I’ve subscribed to some podcasts that make it easy to find something to hear when I can’t think for myself. My wife and I also have a few preachers on auto-record with our DVR.
QUESTION: How do you prepare your listening library in advance?
Step 5: Have a list of friends you can call.
I’m part of a couple of men’s groups. One of my friends, who’s highly successful in his career, admitted that he struggles to admit when he needs help. This week he reached out and accepted help from another group member. He said it was a game changer.
Who do you have in your life that you can call when you can’t even think for yourself?
CHALLENGE: Step 6: Pray for a Thanks Storm.
You’ve never heard of a thanks storm? Neither had I until I started this Gratitude Challenge. Here’s how it might work.
Do you like to brainstorm? I’ll never forget the first time I received training in brainstorming. I felt like a dormant part of my brain had been awakened. In fact, that’s exactly what happened.
A thanks storm uses the tools of brainstorming to come up with dozens of reasons for which you can be thankful. For instance, here is how I did it:
- Start with three basic categories like: people, places, and things. Make three circles on a large sheet of paper, one for each word.
- Now focus on one word and think of one to three things you can be thankful for about that word (e.g. people).
- Then move to the next word and repeat this process.
- After you’ve been around all three words, go around the circle again, but this time use the words you came up with the first time to take you deeper. See my example.
- Try to do this for 3-5 minutes and see how many things you’ve come up with. (I came up with 36 in just 3 minutes.)
- At the end spend a few minutes returning thanks to God for some of these prompts you’ve uncovered.
- Write down in your journal how this makes you feel.
Father, thank you for creating the brain and mind in such powerful ways. I praise you that our mind can truly overcome so many obstacles. I pray you would release the power of my thoughts through thankfulness. Teach me to defeat the negative thoughts that hold me down. Use me for your glory. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.