Have you ever had a tune stuck in your mind and you simply can’t dislodge it? I woke up one morning with the theme song of the 1960’s TV show ‘Bonanza’ running through my head. They call it an ‘earworm.’ It can be frustrating, but it’s a relatively benign experience. However, repetitive thought patterns can be far more than an annoyance. They can be debilitating and destructive. There are times when our thoughts can turn against us, overwhelm us, attack our emotional wellbeing. They loop incessantly around and around in our brain creating anxiety and stress. This is called ‘rumination.’
In 2 Corinthians 10:5, Paul instructs the believer to ‘take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.’ On the surface this may seem to be a reasonably straight-forward exercise. Such is not always the case.
Rumination can be a stand-alone disorder (obsessive rumination disorder) or the biproduct of some other type of mental health condition. It is a recognized psychological concern and is defined as follows:
“Ruminating thoughts are excessive and intrusive thoughts about negative experiences and feelings. A person with a history of trauma may be unable to stop thinking about the trauma, for example, while a person with depression may persistently think negative self-defeating thoughts. Many different mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, phobias and post traumatic stress disorder may involve ruminating thoughts. However, in some cases, rumination may just occur in the wake of a specific traumatic event, such as a failed relationship.” (Medical News Today Online)
These persistent, self-deprecating intrusions can undermine our confidence. They can generate shame and cause us to question the quality of our faith and our value to God and others. They can even be blasphemous in nature seeming to be entirely contrary to our character. The more we try to rid ourselves of them, the deeper they become entrenched and the greater the mental havoc and dysfunction they cause.
But they do not have to defeat us or keep us in a place of bondage. Here are some suggestions to deal with destructive ruminating thought patterns:
1. Identifying the Triggers: Ruminating thoughts have their roots in some form of mental disruption. People who are experiencing periods of high stress, have suffered a traumatic event, have been emotionally abused, are suffering from anxiety or depression, or struggle with a low self-esteem, are most susceptible to rumination.
These causative triggers may lie very deep in the psyche of a person and sometimes can only be discovered with the help of a trained counselor or psychologist. It is never a bad idea to enlist the skills of a Christian professional who will be sympathetic with the malady and able to counsel in the context of one’s faith.
Once a trigger is identified, we are able to avoid the things that precipitate and feed the looping thought patterns.
2. Rejecting the shame: With persistent, unwanted, out-of-character, adverse or perverse thoughts comes an unwarranted shame. Shame is one of the most effective weapons the devil turns against us to paralyze our effectiveness. Shame is a negative emotion usually battled in isolation. The lie that reinforces feelings of shame is this: ‘the condition is unique to us and signifies some irredeemable flaw in our Christian character.’
When this happens, we need to remind ourselves that we are not unique in our struggles. Paul makes it abundantly clear that there is no temptation faced by any one of us, that is not ‘common’ to all (I Corinthians 10:13).
Indeed, there is no Bible hero who did not suffer personal shame at some point in life. Our Lord Himself understood shame (Hebrews 12:1). Christ, by facing His own personal shame, has removed its ultimate power over us. (Romans 10:11)
It is vital that we continually remind ourselves that our identity in Christ is secure and does not depend on our own infallibility or our fluctuating emotions. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). Jesus became sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). The power of shame to hold us in bondage was broken at the Cross.
Remember, also, the power of confession. The ferocity of the attack of the enemy can be greatly reduced and shame can be neutralized by exposing its presence in our life to an empathic third party who will listen without judgement and pray in agreement.
3. Washing in the Word – The Psalmist says, “I have hidden Your Word in my heart that I might not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11). In ways we do not fully understand, the Word of God is a powerful agent used by the Holy Spirit to cleanse the deepest parts of our soul. Jesus understood this inherent power when He faced temptation in the wilderness and employed the Scripture as a protective shield around His life. The Word reveals the heart of God, the steadfastness of His character, and the unfathomable depth of His love for us. Isaiah discovered this truth and declared it with confidence: “You (God) will keep in perfect peace all who trust in You, all whose thoughts are fixed on You!” (Isaiah 26:3 NLT).
David declares that the one who is established like a tree planted by streams of water is the one who meditates on the Word of the Lord both day and night” (Psalm 1:2,3).
4. Praising as a Pattern – Hymns date me, but without apology I retreat to them in my times of mental duress. They are rich in theology and strong in faith. I have found the wonderful personal practice of falling asleep each night with the music of Gospel hymns and songs playing in my ear. As they play, I rehearse the words in my mind. Often, I awake with a faith statement, from some hymn, as my first morning thought. It anchors my day. My model may not work for all people, but in whatever fashion you are able, incorporate praise into the natural rhythm of your life. Praise dispels shadows and pacifies the mind. Praise diminishes the size of the issue and magnifies the power of God. It is no wonder that the Psalmist repeatedly commands himself, and commends others, to the practice of intentional praise (Psalm 30:4).
5. Distracting the Stubborn Thoughts – It is important to deliberately and intentionally replace negative ruminating thoughts with positive ones. Human nature tends towards negativity. Overcomers are those who purposefully find positive things on which to dwell. Optimism in life is cultivated by intention. Paul likely had this truth in mind when he wrote his final instruction to the Philippian believers: “And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise" (Philippians 4:8 NLT). This is an intentional act of ‘fixing’ your thoughts.
A great tool to help in the exercise of ‘fixing your thoughts’ on positive things is choosing to regularly read the biographies of great men and women of faith who predate us. Immersed in the amazing narrative of their lives, we are pulled out of the negative thought patterns in which we are trapped, and elevated from them to a positive mindset.
6. Breaking the Negative Thought Pattern by Replacing it with a Substitute – The paradox of contemporary life is that we have both too much time and too little time. We have too much time to think, too little time to channel our thoughts in healthy ways.
There are times when we must deliberately ‘derail’ our destructive thought patterns and send them on a different positive track. When our mind becomes fixated on some negative rumination, it is imperative that we stop the loop. We can do this by replacing the activity that fosters ruminating thoughts with another that requires the application of different concentration pathways in our brain.
Mental Health professionals vigorously agree. They universally promote walks in nature, taken with the express purpose of observing and enjoying the surroundings. Other such diversions may be writing in a journal, constructing a blog, working on a hobby, having coffee with a friend, actively engaging in support, reading a life-giving book, or spending time in horseplay with your children.
It is a paradox, but nonetheless true, to say that the more active the mind, and the more varied the activities in which it engages, the more settled and satisfied it will be.
If you are suffering from this mental health concern, more help is available through the following links: