One of the most common signs of burnout or depression is unhelpful thought patterns, which tend to distort our view of reality in a false and negative way. As the writers of Mind over Mood put it, “Our perception of an event or experience powerfully affects our emotional, behavioral, and physiological responses to it.” Or, as the Bible puts it: “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7).
Service Bay 5 of the Soul Care Garage (previous bays here and here) identifies, challenges, and changes false thought patterns. Let’s go pay the mechanic a visit. He seems to have s small white book in his hand with a strange emoticon on it.
Service Bay 5: Rethinking our Thoughts
In Christians get depressed too, I describe 10 false thought patterns that reflect, but also contribute to, the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Here’s a summary of some of them:
False extremes: This is a tendency to evaluate personal qualities in extreme, black-and-white categories; shades of gray do not exist. This is sometimes called all-or-nothing thinking.
- Life example: You make one mistake in preaching a sermon and conclude you are a total disaster.
- Biblical example: Despite most of his life being characterized by God’s blessing and prosperity, when Job passed through a time of suffering, he decided he must be an enemy of God (Job 13:24; 33:10).
False generalization: This happens when, after experiencing one unpleasant event, we conclude that the same thing will happen to us again and again.
- Life example: When you try to witness to someone, you are mocked, and you conclude that this will always happen to you and that you will never win a soul for Christ.
- Biblical example: At a low point in his own life, Jacob deduced that because Joseph was dead and Simeon was captive in Egypt that Benjamin would also be taken from him: “All these things are against me,” he generalized.
False filter: When we are depressed, we tend to pick out the negative in every situation and think about it alone, to the exclusion of everything else. We filter out anything positive and decide everything is negative.
- Life example: You heard something in a sermon you did not like or agree with and went home thinking and talking only about that part of the service.
- Biblical example: Despite having just seen God’s mighty and miraculous intervention on Mount Carmel, Elijah filtered out all the positives and focused only on the continued opposition of Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 19:10).
False transformation: We transform neutral or positive experiences into negative ones. The depressed person doesn’t ignore positive experiences; rather, she disqualifies them or turns them into their opposite.
- Life example: If someone compliments you, you conclude that the person is just being hypocritical or that he or she is trying to get something from you.
- Biblical example: Jonah saw many Ninevites repent in response to his preaching. But in- stead of rejoicing in this positive experience, his mood slumped so low that he angrily asked God to take away his life (Jonah 4:3–4).
False mind reading: We may think that we can tell what someone is thinking about us, that the person hates us or views us as stupid. But such negative conclusions usually are not supported by the facts.
- Life example: Someone who used to talk to you at church now passes you with hardly a word, so you decide that you have fallen out of her favor. But, unknown to you, the person’s marriage is in deep trouble, and she is too embarrassed to risk talking to anyone.
- Biblical example: The psalmist one day concluded that all men were liars. On reflection, he admitted that this judgment was overly hasty (Ps. 116:11).
A couple more, quickly, in summary form:
False lens: This is when we view our fears, errors, or mistakes through a magnifying glass and deduce catastrophic consequences. Everything then is out of proportion. The other side of this is that while you maximize your faults with a magnifying glass, you also tend to look through the binoculars the wrong way when it comes to your assets—and minimize them.
False “shoulds”: Our lives may be dominated by “shoulds” or “oughts,” applied to ourselves or others. This heaps pressure on us and others to reach certain unattainable standards and causes frustration and resentment when others or we fail.
Step-by-step guide out of false thought patterns
These false thinking patterns are not only the symptoms of burnout and depression; they perpetuate and deepen them. They eventually cause physical symptoms too. So, let me propose a biblical method that will help you to correct these false and damaging thought habits. And they are habits; we get into deep ruts in our thinking that are sometimes very difficult to get out of.
We must first identify false and unhelpful thought-patterns, then challenge them, and then change them. And this isn’t optional: Christians are obliged to challenge falsehood and distortions of reality, especially when they find them in themselves
Psalm 77 is a perfect example of Asaph’s investigating, challenging, and changing his thoughts, with God’s help, in order to raise his mood and spirits. There are also slightly more abbreviated versions of the same biblical strategy in Job 19, Psalm 42, 73, and Habakkuk 3. So, this is not “psychological mumbo-jumbo,” but true Bible-based Christian experience. In Christians get depressed too, I go into this Biblical Re-thinking Training in much more detail. Maybe I’ll return to this next week, but we must hurry on to Service bays 6&7 in the Soul Care Garage tomorrow.
This is an edited version of an article that was first published at Gospel Centered Discipleship.