How to Calm Anxious Thoughts, Using the Bible
You were expecting a phone call from your daughter half an hour ago, and she still hasn’t called. She’s also not answering your calls. You feel your heart thumping as your thoughts race: What if she’s been in a car accident? What if something terrible has happened? What if…?
These kinds of anxious thoughts are common. When things don’t go as planned, and we don’t know why, it’s so easy to assume the worst.
More often than not, however, these things turn out to be harmless inconveniences or minor misunderstandings.
But how do we deal with this worry that feels so awful? How do we break free from its grip?
It starts with our thoughts.
Which is why we’re going to learn how to handle them. We calm them by challenging them head on. Then we can determine whether our fears are valid or whether they’re a product of our overactive imaginations.
So here’s an overview of what we’ll cover:
- What are anxious thoughts?
- What the Bible says about anxious thoughts
- How to deal with negative thoughts
- Why Adventists care about mental health
If you’re looking for solutions for handling these things, start by realizing that it is possible. As we understand the nature of thoughts, we’ll be better equipped to deal with them.
What are anxious thoughts?
Anxious thoughts are thoughts that cause us feelings of anxiety, worry, or fear. They are often triggered by events or situations. (Though sometimes, our own rumination can bring them about, too.)
The Canadian Mental Health Association points out that anxiety has three aspects:
- A thought or expectation that something negative will happen
- Physical symptoms, such as tension, an increased heart rate, sticky palms, or a knotted stomach
- An action, usually a fight or flight (or freeze) response.
These three aspects align with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a well-known method in psychotherapy today. According to CBT, an activating event leads to a belief, which then leads to a consequence. The consequence is either a feeling or a behavior.
This chain is the ABCs of CBT:
Activating event > Belief > Consequence.
The idea is this:
What we choose to believe about a situation determines how we feel about it and respond to it.
Thus, when we feel worried or afraid, it’s because we’ve chosen to view a situation in a way that would cause those feelings. Our thoughts are the culprit.
Let’s add some biblical perspective to our understanding.
What the Bible says about anxious thoughts
The Bible teaches us that what we think has a direct connection to who we are (Proverbs 23:7, NKJV). For this reason, it encourages us to ask God to search our hearts for anxious thoughts so that we can have His truth placed there instead.
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6, NKJV).
David the psalmist lived this out when he prayed:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties” (Psalm 139:23, NKJV).
We, too, can pray and ask Him to search our hearts and show us the anxious thoughts fueling our worries and fears.
Most often, these thoughts will not be true.
However, at times, they may be true but unhelpful.
God wants us to speak both true and helpful thoughts in our hearts (Psalm 15:2, NKJV) because He knows that our thoughts will shape our feelings and behaviors.
He invites us to think about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” (Philippians 4:8, CSB).
And thankfully, we don’t have to guess what is true.
The Bible is our source of truth (John 17:17, NKJV). And there, we see it lived out in Jesus (John 14:6, NKJV).
God wants us to replace our negative thoughts with accurate and helpful thoughts. In the next section, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of how to do that.
How to deal with negative thoughts
Dealing with negative thoughts involves identifying our thinking patterns, challenging them, and replacing them with thoughts that are true and helpful.
Dr. Neil Nedley, a Seventh-day Adventist physician and world-renowned speaker who runs a depression and anxiety recovery program, promotes this method in his book The Lost Art of Thinking. He says:
“The goal is to systematically challenge and dispute your thoughts, discover if they are valid, and question their accuracy. By analyzing and reflecting on what you are thinking, you will be able to see if you are playing old, dysfunctional messages in your brain.”1
But why can’t we just ignore the worry and anxiety? Sometimes it seems like it’d be better to avoid thinking about things that trigger us or cause us to worry…
Turns out, when we ignore these emotions, we’re hurting ourselves—but not just psychologically. Emotional suppression affects us on a physical level.
Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester noticed that over 12 years, people who suppressed their emotions had higher rates of death, including from cancer.2
And those of us who have tried ignoring our anxiety know that it often heightens the feelings. In the end, we feel worse!
We need a better way to deal with anxious feelings. Why not try these three steps?
- Identify the thought
- Challenge the thought
- Replace it with the truth
They’re simple steps, yes. But they require consistency and persistence so that we can develop healthier habits of thinking.
Please note: This article should not be taken as medical advice. If you or your loved one is struggling with a mental illness, including an anxiety disorder or panic disorder, please seek out a mental health professional. Doing so isn’t a lack of faith.
1. Identify the thought
The first step in challenging anxious thoughts is becoming aware of them. When your stomach tightens and the heat rises to your cheeks, what are you thinking at that moment?
Could you be succumbing to a negative thought pattern?
In The Lost Art of Thinking, Dr. Nedley covers ten thought distortions common in counseling and psychology.
See if your negative thought fits into one of these categories:
- All-or-nothing thinking—Everything is either black or white; there’s no middle ground. You might think, If I don’t fulfill this task perfectly, I’m a total failure.
- Overgeneralization—You draw conclusions from a single negative experience, expecting all future experiences to be the same. For example, I didn’t get hired for the job. I’ll never get any job.
- Mental filters—You focus on the negative while filtering out the positive. You might pick out the one thing that went wrong among many things that went well.
- Discounting the positive—You come up with reasons why something positive isn’t really so. When someone compliments you on a presentation you gave, you respond, “It was luck,” or you think to yourself, they’re just trying to be nice.
- Mind reading—You assume you know what someone is thinking about you or a situation. For example, when your neighbor didn’t wave at you, you thought, she must not like me.
- Fortune telling—You predict a negative outcome before it happens. You might assume something bad has happened to your daughter because she isn’t answering your phone calls.
- Magnification—You exaggerate problems and mistakes. This thought pattern is often accompanied by minimizing good qualities.
- Emotional reasoning—You believe that the way you feel reflects reality. You might think, I feel incapable, so I must be.
- Labeling—You attach negative traits to yourself or others based on mistakes and perceived shortcomings. You may tell yourself, I’m a failure or I’m boring, so I deserve to be alone.
- Personalization—You take personal responsibility for things outside your control. For example, a parent might think, It’s my fault my son got in an accident. I should have warned him to drive carefully in the rain.
2. Challenge the thought
Now that you’ve identified your negative thought pattern, it’s time to challenge it. Asking yourself questions is an effective way to do this.
Here are some to get you started:3
- Is this thought true? What is the evidence for it?
- What are some other ways to look at the situation?
- How likely is it that what I fear will happen? What’s more likely to happen?
- Does this thought help me or hurt me? How?
- What would I say to a friend with this same worry?
By asking these questions, it’s easy to catch unnecessary reasons for worry. And they also prepare us for the final step…
3. Replace it with the truth
When we have recognized our negative thought for what it is, we’re ready to replace it with the truth of the Bible and the truth of the situation.
The Bible calls this process “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5, NKJV).
As we bring our thoughts to God and replace them, He sets us free (John 8:32, NKJV).
So here are some examples of truth—both Bible verses and reality—that can replace our anxious thinking:
|Negative Thought||The Distortion||The Truth|
|I can’t make any mistakes.||All-or-nothing thinking||We all make mistakes, but God offers us grace and forgiveness (1 John 1:9, NKJV).|
|My mother left me when I was a child, so I’m destined to be alone for the rest of my life.||Overgeneralization||God says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5, NKJV).|
|I can’t forgive myself for when I said something hurtful to my sister. (Even though it was small compared to the many wonderful times you’ve had together.)||Mental filter||Your sister remembers all the wonderful times with you—she’s not dwelling on that one time you said something that hurt her.|
|They were just saying they liked my presentation to be polite. In reality, I’m not good enough for this role.||Discounting the positive||You can be confident in who God made you. He gives you strength and wisdom when you don’t feel good enough (Philippians 4:13; James 1:5, NKJV).|
|My neighbor didn’t wave back at me. She must not like me.||Mind reading||Your neighbor may not have seen you wave. She could have been preoccupied with other thoughts. And even if your neighbor didn’t like you, your worth comes from God’s love for you (Jeremiah 31:3, NKJV).|
|I’m afraid that something bad will happen.||Fortune telling|
God has “thoughts of peace and not of evil” toward you (Jeremiah 29:11, NKJV).
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23:4, ESV).
|I can’t handle this situation! It’s too hard for me.||Magnification||God says you can do all things through Christ (Philippians 4:13, NKJV).|
|I feel afraid. I must not have any faith.||Emotional reasoning|
God has given everyone a “measure of faith” (Romans 12:3, NKJV).
“…If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20, CSB).
|I’m a reject and a nobody.||Labeling||God tells you that you are “accepted in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6, NKJV).|
|I wonder if this happened to me because God is punishing me.||Personalization||God understands our weaknesses and is full of mercy toward us. He doesn’t treat us as we deserve (Psalm 103:10–14). And the things that happen to us might just be part of the randomness of our mixed-up world (Matthew 5:45, NKJV).|
The good news is that for each of the lies we tell ourselves, God has something in His Word to counter it. He sets us free to enjoy the present moment as a blessing from Him.
And that’s why this topic is so important to us as Adventists.
Why Adventists care about mental health
Adventists care about mental health because God cares about it. He wants us to experience the freedom that comes from thinking and living out the truth. He knows our minds are connected with our bodies and that they influence one another.
And it’s because He created us that way. We are “remarkably and wondrously made” (Psalm 139:14, CSB).
The Bible calls us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30, NKJV). This covers every aspect of our lives—our emotions, spirituality, thoughts, and bodies.
When we care for our minds by thinking healthy thoughts, we show love to our Creator. And the health of our minds impacts the health of our bodies. On the flip side, caring for our physical well-being is a way to support a healthier mind. These are all important parts of Adventist health principles.
You can be free from anxious thoughts
More than anything, God wants you to be free from worry and fear, experiencing the fullest joy in your daily life (John 10:10; 15:11, NKJV).
And that kind of life results from believing and living the truth.
If you’ve found yourself plagued by anxious thoughts, know that God wants to free you from those. He’s here to help you identify, challenge, and replace them with helpful and accurate thinking.
As you do so, you’ll be on the path to a healthier mind that can love Him more fully.
- Nedley, Neil, The Lost Art of Thinking (Nedley Publishing, 2011), p. 20. [↵]
- Chapman, et al., “Emotion Suppression and Mortality Risk Over a 12-Year Follow-Up,” Journal of Psychosomatic Research, vol. 75(4), 2013, pp. 381–385. [↵]
- “Are Your Thoughts Holding You Back?” Alice Stapleton Career Coaching, Feb. 23, 2014. [↵]
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