Throughout the month of October, our church came around the subject of mental health. We believe it is critical to have conversations about the thoughts and feelings that are shaping our lives and to encourage the people we lead to be open and honest about difficult subjects like anxiety, depression, and suicide. In the midst of this conversation within our community, I shared a framework for understanding the interplay between our thoughts, feelings, and behavior that I believe can help us take control of this cycle and walk into freedom. We do so by the power of the Holy Spirit, but we have a part to play in the process. Jesus said it is our knowledge of the truth that brings freedom in our lives. Therefore, increased understanding can lead to greater freedom.
Here’s the concept. Emotions are not irrational, they are arational. Meaning your feelings are not governed by your reason. They cannot be reasoned with, and they are not right or wrong. Your feelings are amoral. It is not wrong to have (or not have) a particular feeling. Thoughts, on the other hand, are rational. They can be assessed—is this thought right or wrong?—and they can be changed. And here’s the key: Our thoughts shape our feelings. So, while we can’t tell our feelings to change, we can shift them indirectly by taking direct action on our thoughts.
We like to think we act based on our reason but, in reality, our feelings have much more sway than we may like to admit. Our feelings shape our actions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be disastrous if we are unaware and unintentional. Between our thoughts and our feelings is one more key component of this equation: interpretation. Our interpretation is the story we tell ourselves about everything that happens in our lives. And that story will dictate how we feel about the things we experience. So if you want to shift your feelings and change your behavior, you need to address the things you’re thinking and the story you’re telling. Your thoughts and your interpretation are the beginning of the process and, ultimately, they determine the outcome.
Healthy thinking leads to healthy feelings; healthy feelings lead to healthy living.
Let’s get even clearer here with a visual representation:
This is the process constantly at work in our lives: thought, interpretation, emotion, behavior. It is repeating on an endless cycle. We can’t stop it, but we can take control of it. So how do we actively influence this process? First, we reflect. Too often, we allow this cycle to go on unchecked, moving and developing unconsciously. We need to exercise metacognition—we need to think about what we’re thinking about. What actions are you taking? What feelings are driving those actions? What thoughts led to those feelings? As you reflect, you need to review. Are you happy with your behavior? If not, what new thought would produce a new feeling that would shift your behavior in the right direction? As you review, you will gain clarity on what needs to change. Then you respond. Be intentional to think a new thought that will redirect this process and channel it into your desired outcome. Progress will be slow but, little by little, you will see things start to shift. Reflect, review, respond, and then repeat—again and again, day by day, until you begin to think, feel, and act in ways that align with your deepest beliefs and values.
Here are some questions to ask yourself for each step:
- Why do I feel this way?
- Are my thoughts factual or a lie?
- Am I being fair with myself?
- Is my thought in line with what the Bible says?
- Does my thought bring glory to God?
- What feelings do I repeatedly experience in my mind?
- What thoughts are these feelings attached to?
- How does that play out in my behavior?
- Is there a pattern I can identify?
- How can I reframe my thoughts?
- What is my reframed thought?
- What feeling do I think this reframed thought will produce?
- How can I apply that thought today?
- What new feelings is this new thought bringing?
- How is my behavior changing?
What is the goal of this exercise? A renewed mind. We know the words of Paul: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). Spiritual renewal is not disembodied. God created us with bodies, minds, souls, spirits. Many of those words can get mixed up and interchanged—what is the difference between the mind, the soul, and the spirit?—but the concept is simple enough. We are not just bodies, brains, or minds. We are multifaceted beings and we need to live as such. The process of spiritual renewal will engage every part of ourselves. The Holy Spirit is active in this process and so should we be. If we are going to experience renewal, we are going to have to do the hard work of reflecting, reviewing, and responding. And when one cycle ends, we turn right back around and repeat.