Prisoner of Your Thoughts? Here’s How to Capture Them and Be Free

Anyone with mental illness can probably relate to the challenge of racing thoughts, persistent painful memories, and torturous self-loathing. I’m guessing this is true based on hearing stories from so many who struggle. *

Whether driving, trying to sleep, sitting in school, or on the job, there are times thoughts seem to hold us captive. They could be anything from “Does he like me?” to “I do not deserve to live.” 

One woman said, “A thought is just a thought.” She is a survivor of monstrous physical abuse at the hands of her mother.  At the time of her statement, her inner prison included every negative that she could think about herself. Slowly, she was learning to challenge these false beliefs and put an end to impulsive self-destruction. It is a lifetime process for her; when we met she was in her mid-fifties.

Some of you do not have to try to imagine her plight because you know it intimately. People around you have complained as you play music loud enough to drown out repetitive memories or fears. You have tried to sleep your days away to escape. Unfortunately, self-medication may have made matters worse, and you feel less worthy than ever before. 

I know because I’ve been there, and unwelcome thoughts still threaten on bad days. However, there is a way out for all of us. We can take thoughts captive permanently, while we go free.  

It is about renewing our mind. Most of us cannot do this on our own. If we could, it would be done already. Some of us don’t understand this option at all.  Here are 9 tactics:

  1. Be willing to give up familiar beliefs about yourself, other people, experiences, and the world.  Simply ask, “What do I want?” Do you want change even if it makes you afraid?
  2. Find someone who gets it who is able to listen and guide without judgment. Personally, I suggest a professional and licensed therapist. Not even those relationships are always a good fit, so do not be afraid to search until you find someone knowledgable who works well with your personality. Expect to be challenged. That is why you are there!
  3. Question messages and messengers. Who sent you the message you are worthless or incapable? What evidence exists to the contrary? For example, I had to ask why I believed women have less value than men. Did I know women I could admire? Yes. Did I know men deserving of little respect? Yes. This real evidence proves the message wrong.  The messenger of the lie had a flawed history of chauvinism and abuse of women. Once I questioned his values, he was easier to dismiss as a reliable source. That started to change everything.
  4. Forgive yourself for all the self-harm, harm to others, and perceived missteps you have done. Please allow yourself to be a deeply flawed, perfectly imperfect human being who was never meant to be mistake-proof. None of us are more than human or less than animals. Acknowledge wrongdoing by telling God and another human the exact nature of your wrongs. Some of the guilt you bear was never yours to own. Let it all go. 
  5. In the immediate moment of persistent uncomfortable thoughts, focus on something else. For me, this can be anything from serving others to word searches. Distractions help so much! If trying to sleep, do something that demands concentration yet makes you sleepy. Many people have success with DBT** training.
  6. Interrupting the thoughts can help. I say, “Stop!” up to many times per day. It gives me a moment to regroup and change my focus. One therapist suggested putting a bag of frozen vegetables under my arm! Yikes, it probably works! (You try it first and let me know.) 
  7. Allow time and effort room to make a difference. Some of our false, negative, core beliefs are deeply buried under tangled messes of fear, anger, innocence, familiarity, trauma, pain, and more. As time and hard work chip away at these, give yourself credit for even the tiniest movements forward. Slow progress is still amazing progress!
  8. Old beliefs have to be replaced with something. Make sure those new beliefs are positive and true. Here are some very practical, doable, and successful exercises to defeat self-loathing and other powerful negative thoughts – see How to Gain and Maintain a Mindset of Hope.
  9. Turn your hope to the one source of unconditional love that never fails. Believe me, I’ve tried so hard to depend on people for this, and each time someone cares and loves me, it falls short of “unconditional”.  This dependency on humans has left me hurt, devastated, and despairing.  You too? I’ve learned to place a limited amount of trust in even the best people, and to trust God with everything. We need to allow therapists, loved ones, and friends to care for us the best they can. Ultimately, when we have God’s love to lean on, we are never alone even when others let us down. 

You deserve to feel better. You can be free!   

Today’s Helpful Word

Philippians 4:8  

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.  

-Saint Paul

NOTE:  I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help is yours.

*I am not a doctor or therapist and cannot speak to the many nuances of serious mental illness such as major depression, bipolar disorder, psychosis, or schizophrenia. Please see a psychiatrist for diagnosis and a suitable treatment plan.  

**DBT stands for Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. It is a fun and profound training about controlling your thoughts and behaviors. You can find DBT training around the country and online.

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