Do you ever wake in the middle of the night with a dreadful thought? Does your mind quickly focus on negative issues? Those thoughts become toxic when we feed them too much and they start to consume us.
Recently, I had just finished reading a very emotional piece to my wife. I was in a vulnerable place, and she asked me a simple question driven by a genuine and right desire. My mind received it as criticism that I wasn’t doing enough. I quickly became defensive.
In the past, I might have gone down a path toward a toxic wasteland, but this Gratitude Challenge has taught me a few things that helped me avoid that.
I’m not alone. Sean Grover is a psychotherapist, and he tells about his own experience of recovering from toxic thoughts through the simple power of gratitude journaling. Dr. Caroline Leaf also has a process that helps people identify and replace toxic thoughts.
7 Steps to Replace Toxic Thoughts with Thankfulness
Based on my experience, here are seven steps to replace toxic thoughts with gratitude.
#1: Identify the toxic thought.
Through the Switch App, Dr. Leaf walks participants through a process to identify their toxic thoughts. She shares the research that proves that identifying the toxic thought actually weakens it. When we ignore or stuff these dangerous thoughts, they gain power.
When my wife shared her desire, I found myself immediately defensive, and I asked myself, “What’s going on? Why are you wanting to attack her?” That’s when I realized I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. That’s a theme in my life.
You may not know what the thought is, but if you’re starting to feel anxious, irritable, or depressed, ask yourself a few questions:
- Am I getting enough sleep, water, and exercise? Sometimes our physical needs display as emotional needs.
- What’s happening that makes me feel like this? Have I felt like this before? Just write down what comes to mind.
#2: Describe the toxic thought.
Spend a few minutes journaling about the thought. Perhaps draw a picture or tell a story. I find that through writing and then talking about it, I gain more clarity.
Sometimes our toxic thoughts originate from a misinterpretation of events. We can benefit from the perspective of others.
Mark Oelze shares in his book Pledge Talk the power of the traffic accident scenario. In all accidents, the police will interview as many witnesses as possible to put together the truth about what really happened. Each person brings only one perspective. Likewise in our lives, we need others to help us see what’s really happening.
In reflecting back with my wife, I noticed that I quickly took her simple request that I pray for her more as a judgment that I wasn’t praying enough. That’s not what she said. That wasn’t even her intention. Instead, she was sharing a longing. I had to recognize that my feelings of inadequacy caused me to misinterpret her message.
#3: Reverse your thoughts.
Sometimes our toxic thoughts are actually sinful, and we need to repent. Perhaps we’re not trusting in God’s provision, believing in the Gospel, or exercising faith. If you see this, start by acknowledging before God your false beliefs. Don’t overthink this. It may not be immediately obvious what’s at the core.
If you don’t sense your thought is necessarily sinful, it still needs to be replaced. Ask yourself what better belief you could embrace.
In the situation with my wife, I noticed I wanted to lie about how much I pray for her. My desire to appear adequate caused me to become blinded to the truth.
The issue for me wasn’t about how much I pray, but instead about how I became focused on appearing like I’m more than I am. That’s what I had to repent of.
I’m thankful I can see this, as that’s the beginning point of overcoming this toxic thought.
#4: Replace toxic thoughts with thankful thoughts.
Part of reframing a toxic belief is to find things you can be thankful for. Negative thinking often becomes obsessive and consuming to the point where it affects how we interpret all of life. The deliberate practice of gratitude can help us disempower toxicity and create a path toward a truly grateful life.
With my wife, I’m grateful we could even have that conversation. Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have felt open enough to talk without it becoming emotional to the point of a fight or a full-on retreat. Instead, after only a few moments of reflection, I was able to identify what I was feeling. It led to a great conversation.
#5: Take a deep breath (or three).
Mark Oelze always encourages clients to pause before discussing emotional situations. If you’re having a hard time being thankful or identifying what the real issues are, take a minute to do some deep breathing.
Dr. Caroline Leaf shares this:
“When life gets tough, just breathe! Controlling your breathing not only helps increase the flow of oxygen to your brain, it dissipates cortisol, which will help you relax. Breathing deeply sends a message to your brain to calm down. Deep breathing also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness. Remember: You control your brain. Your brain does not control you!”Dr. Caroline Leaf
Deep breathing has become automatic for me. I start every day doing some deep breathing and stretching while I pray and prepare for the day. So when the situation with my wife started to escalate, I stopped and took a few breaths before saying anything I would later regret.
I find that when I respond without thinking (or breathing deeply), I often get myself into trouble.
While breathing deeply, ask yourself some more questions:
- Am I overreacting?
- Could there be another way to see these circumstances?
- Is something else going on that I don’t see?
#6: Pray honestly.
In 1 Kings 19, Elijah has run away fearing for his life. The Lord asks him what he’s doing, and he says, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.”
The Lord reveals himself to Elijah in a powerful way, in essence saying, “I’m still with you. Do not be afraid.”
Then Elijah again complains, and the Lord reveals that he’s not alone. There are 7,000 other faithful believers.
When we pray, God helps us see what’s really going on. He reminds us of who he is, what he’s doing, and that we’re never alone.
#7: Rinse and repeat daily.
As we’ve been learning, it takes 60–90 days to completely create a new neural pathway. The first 21 days tend to be the hardest, as that’s when you’re pulling up the toxic weeds and planting new seeds.
Challenge yourself to make this a daily process. Even 5–10 minutes a day can make a huge difference.
Lord, I’m grateful for your living, breathing word. Thank you for sending the Spirit to reveal the secrets in my heart. I give you permission to pull the toxic thoughts out of my mind and ask you to show me how to replace them with truth. Protect me from causing harm. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.