Take Every Thought Captive

Watchfulness for healthy stress management

by Philip G. Monroe

Mindfulness has clear positive health benefits by reducing our stress responses to the chaos in our lives. Mindful individuals appear to have greater amounts of patience, are able to avoid impulsive responses to stress, process rather than react to emotions, and have greater capacities to be curious and loving.

It is well-known that small amounts of stress activate the body and larger amounts make us sick. The same biological response system that fights viral intruders activates with high levels of stress. Your body senses an intruder. The macrophages that come in contact with a virus act like little ants sending messages to their buddies to come and defend the colony. Your resulting fever is evidence that the body is working. But to work this hard, other bodily systems get shut down. Your stomach and intestines stop or slow down their contractions, you lose your appetite and sexual drive, you have difficulty thinking clearly. These sick symptoms are more likely the result of your body’s defense mode than the virus that has intruded.
The same thing happens with high stress. Your pleasure centers shut down to conserve energy. Such activity decreases clarity of thought and pleasure and thus increases experiences of depression and anxiety. See how a vicious cycle of stress and distress leads to greater symptoms of depression and anxiety?

Anxiety means we’re unable to live in the present. And when we cannot live in the present, we cannot tune into the sacred moment offered to us.

What is mindfulness? The answer depends on who you ask. Definitions range from Buddhist forms of meditation to being present in the moment, to being aware, to centering prayer, to having a nonjudgmental stance. So for some it is a religious activity. For others, it’s a form of consciousness. And for still others it is in relational “attunement,” such as a mother’s awareness of the meaning of an infant’s needs even before the cry or a service dog that picks up subtle clues. The truth is that each one of these fragments of definitions captures a little bit of what one observes and someone who is able to, in the moment, stand back from the chaos in their life and not react to it. Such people seem to be alert to the moment, are being in the moment rather than reacting and doing something, are more likely to be describing the events, feelings, perceptions, rather than judging them.

Mindfulness in Psychology

Mindfulness research in psychology has exploded because of the propensity for us to be constantly and anxiously judging our worlds. We confirm our own fears about what is right, wrong, good, bad. Mindfulness recognizes that there can be wise thinking about these things, but that much of our lives are reactive and anxiety-based. We benefit from the reminder that acceptance of feelings and experiences helps us to be aware that there is a bigger picture. While some of us, particularly from a Christian worldview, think this acceptance makes us passive or allows us to become unwilling to do something about sinfulness, this is not the point of mindfulness or meditation and would be a misuse of these tools.

What happens in the brain when a person is practicing mindfulness? Thought and feeling patterns result in neural activities in the brain. Repeated neural activity creates stronger connections between neurons (increased synaptic activity and denser connections with neurons in the same neighborhood). Repeated activity leads to greater blood flow and activation in particular regions of the brain. Neuroscientists call this neuroplasticity. Thus, affective and cognitive patterns can change your brain.

Think about this. What patterns of thought do you engage in? Do you have a habit of fantasizing? Mulling over bitter or jealous thoughts? While some of these may come naturally to you, what you do with them may actually change or strengthen neural connections in the brain–for better or for worse. Much of our lives are run on auto-pilot. So frequently we react to life rather than observe it without giving in to impulsive reactions. When we are in that mode, it is easy to fall into rumination, but these are not healthy patterns. Mindfulness reminds us to stay in the present, to be attuned to our surroundings. Notice ruminations, but let them slide on out of view, and bring yourself back to the present. Use your senses given by God to enjoy the world God made. Smells, sounds, sights, taste and touch all provide means to enjoy the world.

Mindfulness includes the stepping back from shoulds, oughts, and other judgments. One might think that this would be dangerous for Christians. The Bible is among other things, the single guide for Christians to determine how to live for God. So the question is whether Christians should be wary of anything that seems to let go of shoulds and oughts. In my experience as a clinical psychologist, those suffering from anxiety and depression suffer from a disorder of judgments. They are flooded by shoulds and oughts, and their self-talk does not seem to come from the Lord but is already laced with prejudice.

“You should have been more vigilant against danger and you weren’t. You’re a failure.”

“You shouldn’t be rebellious but you are always a screw-up.”

“I shouldn’t have to suffer this way and God must not care for me.”

Notice that most of these forms of judgment seem to be careful consideration of the facts and experience but actually are well-formed opinions that may be based on only a smidgen of the actual events in the person’s present circumstances. Ruminative thinking come in disguise of careful, logical thoughts, but it is well-practiced narratives and conclusion that we repeat regardless of the actual facts of our lives. Mindfulness, then, instead of automatically repeating a script provides the opportunity to discover what is instead just what we assume.

Have you ever engaged in a fantasy conflictual conversation with someone you are about to meet—or even what you should have said after the conversation ended? You play out yourself winning, being mistreated, standing up for what is right, and so on. Notice how such conversations are not useful and only increase your level of stress because your brain responds to the inner drama as if were really happening. We create tension that leads to suffering.

Mindfulness in Christian Counseling

Mindfulness includes practicing being present in one’s surroundings. A Christian psychology of mindfulness might start by identifying the problem of distorted thoughts, perceptions, and judgments and their genesis in the mind and heart. Second, the model of mindfulness might articulate the proper cognitive and attitudinal engagement in an unpredictable and frightening world. In a counseling practice, for instance, the counselor may encourage clients to take in their surroundings. While thoughts may race through the brain, the mindful person may choose not to follow them but instead drink in the creation of beauty around them—things growing, art, or anything that is a delight to the senses. This form of discipline must be practiced in destressed times so that it will be available in a crisis, just like a basketball player practices free throws over and over so as to make the shot when there is only one second left on the clock. Such is the work of taking every thought captive to obey Christ, as the apostle Paul admonishes in 2 Corinthians 10:5, or taking to heart the psalmist’s restful words, “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me” (Psalm 131:1–2).

One might consider those spiritual disciplines designed to center one’s mind in Christ or to be watchful of thoughts. James Wilhoit of Wheaton College offers helpful thoughts on a prayerful stance of observing the thoughts.1 The goal is not emptying the mind but maintaining conscious connection with the spirit. Such activity opposes “What if?” or “If only” kinds of hypervigilant thinking—thinking that accompanies depression and anxiety and hinders contentment. Wilhoit describes the concept of watchfulness as an intentional construal of the world from God’s perspective. In my thinking, this form of mindfulness does not grasp after logical constructions but observes the world as God sees it and recognizes the common but distorted scripts used as substitutes.

Anxiety means we’re unable to live in the present. And when we cannot live in the present, we cannot tune into the sacred moment offered to us.

Anxiety keeps us at the surface, messing with trivialities with a kind of addictive fervor, disconnected from our soul’s homing instinct. The gift of a moment—this moment—is an awakening to what our hearts most deeply long for. It opens us up to the whisper of the spirit within. God tells us, “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10). With a few deep breaths and long pause we can fairly quickly tune back to this eternal truth.

Notes
1. “Centering Prayer,” in Life in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective, ed. Jeffrey P. Greenman and George Kalantzis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Books, 2010).

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