Have you ever noticed that when you feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to form clear thoughts and think logically? There is a good reason for that. When we are under great stress, our bodies go into the “fight or flight” response which equips the body and brain for survival. The same mechanisms that make your heart pound harder and adrenaline flow when under stress also cause your higher-level thinking abilities to become impaired.
One of the downsides of the stress response is that our higher-level thinking cortex (responsible for language, logic, imagination, and planning) gets hijacked, while our lower brain that runs instincts, reflexes, emotions, and memory is highly activated. This is all meant to work for our survival. After all, if your car is parked on a train track, and a train is barreling down the track towards your car, you don’t need to calculate the velocity involved; you just need to MOVE! Our bodies and brains in fight or flight mode are made to do just that.
When under great stress or anxiety, we are also more susceptible to believing negative thoughts. It’s a lot easier to fight negative thoughts when you’re in a positive frame of mind. When overwhelmed, you will not only have more negative thoughts, but also give in to “stinking thinking” more easily.
I am a huge proponent of talking back to negative thoughts. In other words, replacing lies with truth. In previous blog posts, I’ve shared about the importance of using Scripture to combat negative thoughts. However, when overwhelmed, the part of your brain that can think logically and combat lies with truth is impaired due to your body’s fight/flight system. What then?
Enter the mantra, a short, true statement (4-5 words) that uses little concentration and can be used to get through a time of stress.
Mantra: a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation / a statement or slogan repeated frequently.
Long before I knew about how the fight/flight response affects the brain and body, I managed to use a mantra. I was in labor with my second child in the middle of the night, and I told myself over and over, “Joy comes in the morning, Joy comes in the morning.” After my first birth experience, which was far from pleasant, I was prepared for the worst. In the heat of labor, immersed in pain, I almost forgot my mantra. Still, when it was all said and done, my joy DID come in the morning, with the birth of my sweet child.
Some examples of helpful mantras could be:
- “This too shall pass.”
- “I am not alone.”
- “Tomorrow is a new day.”
- “I can do this.”
Large chunks of Scripture may be hard to remember when in fight or flight mode. Still, the truths of Scripture can be shortened to work as a mantra.
- “His mercies are new each day.” Lamentations 3:22 & 23
- “He will fight for me.” Exodus 14:14
- “God loves me.” John 3:16
- “He is with me.” Isaiah 41:10
If I am being carried along in a rushing river, trying to keep my head above water, I will not be looking for a yacht to come and save me. I will be looking for a life saver, a piece of plywood, or a log to grab onto, until I can make it to shore. That is how I think of mantras. They’re not elaborate. They’re not even eloquent, but they are true. They can be clung to until our brains return to a calm state.
Pause: Take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Think of a Scripture passage that brings you comfort when you are overwhelmed and read through it now.
Renew: Remember a time when you felt overwhelmed and had to fight negative thoughts. When in that circumstance, what kind of a mantra would have been helpful to repeat to yourself?
Next: Make a list this week of a few true, short statements that will be helpful for you the next time you find yourself under major stress. If you want, keep a couple of them in a location where you can see them easily (in your wallet, on your phone, or taped to your bathroom mirror).
May you be encouraged to hold onto truth in the midst of stress and anxiety.
Pause, Renew, Next!