How to Stop Painful Looping Thoughts (“Nourishing the Brain in Pain”)

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(Becky, the Mama.)

We have all had times when our brain seems to get stuck in painful, upsetting thought loops.  I’ve noticed this happens most often when there has been a deep loss (as in grief) or a slight or betrayal (perceived or real) in a significant relationship.   Or if we feel wrongly accused and powerless to defend ourselves. Fear and worry can also kidnap us in a grip of terrorizing thought loops.

Often the brain goes back and forth in a ping-pong fashion, playing out imaginary scenarios or what we would say to someone — if only we could.  Or how we wish things were as they once were, if only we could turn back the clock.  Or how we could help or fix or cure… if only we were able to do so. Your body is in the world, but your mind is stuck in an alternate reality.

What can you do, today,  to ease the pain in your brain?

I wrote of several techniques, in detail, that have proven helpful to many in our book Nourished, in a chapter titled “Nourishing the Brain in Pain.”   If you were sitting at my kitchen table today and going through a rough time with a brain stuck on a Bad Thought Loop, here’s what I would share.  (Based on a ton of research-based reading, good therapy and experimenting with what really worked for me.)

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My friend Sue, a brand new mother, taking time out to rock her baby, and her own exhausted frazzled self on our porch swing.

  1. Rock Your Soul. If you are in a state of exhaustion, overwhelm, upset, feeling triggered and perhaps shaky and unable to process,  I’d urge you to do something physical that rocks your body back and forth, first.   Get out on a porch swing, rock in a chair, talk a walk, swing your arms and head back and forth like rag doll.  This technique works on adults the same way it works on a baby or child.  We instinctively know to rock or swing a baby back and forth when it is upset.  I won’t go into all the neurological reasons this helps, but trust me, any kind of rhythmic movement tends to release trauma.
My niece Whitney..we spent a fun, memorable day painting on my back porch together.

My niece Whitney..we spent a fun, memorable day painting on my back porch together.

  1. Healthy Distractions. Once calmer you can ask yourself, “Do I want to think about this situation right now, or can it wait until a better time?”  If you don’t want to think about it right now, do a Healthy Distraction.  Do something that is of great interest to you, something that absorbs your mind and focus.  Or better yet, try to do or learn something brand new.  This keeps the brain so busy it can’t ruminate.   Take a painting class. Listen to an intriguing or uplifting Ted Talk for 20 minutes.  Go to a brand new restaurant. Learn to tango.  Volunteer at a homeless shelter.  Adopt a pet.  Whatever sounds fun and absorbs your mind and/or body. In fact, it is a good idea to make a list of Healthy Distractions so that when you find yourself kidnapped by a painful series of thoughts, you have some ideas to try at your fingertips.

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  1. Self-Questioning/Processing. If you are in a good spot to process and think, then grab a pen and paper and get to a quiet place.   Notice the feeling that is currently most painful.  Is it jealousy?  Anger? Hurt? Grief?   Now follow that feeling down to just one thought that is underneath it all.  It is often a thought that begins with,  “(name of person) should not have…”  or “(name of person) should have…”  or (Event) should not have happened…”  Or perhaps it is a worry.  “I am afraid that if I don’t get this job…. I will…”  Or “I worry that if my adult child doesn’t stop using drugs he will….”       Don’t edit yourself to sound nicer or more spiritual, just write down the thought that is under the pain.

 

  1. Play with the Painful Thought. Now, play with that thought a bit. Try saying the opposite of it.  Or switching up the sentence in various ways.   Do any of these new sentences speak to you?  Sound as true or truer than the painful thought, but make you feel lighter, more hopeful or happy? For example,  let’s say you are feeling hurt and angry and beneath these feelings  is the thought, “My  brother should have given me something for my birthday.”    You can play with this sentence in several ways.  Here are a few examples:

“My brother should NOT have given me something for my birthday.” – Stay with this thought for a bit.  Can you think of anything positive that came from your brother NOT giving you something for your birthday?  Could this event, however painful to you now, be leading you to a new level of freedom in learning to give up expectations of others?  And wouldn’t you be happier if you stopped giving others the power of disappointing you? What if you stopped expecting them to be like some perceived image of a “good brother” or a “good person” – and just accepted and loved them as they are? Does that make you breathe a little easier?

* “I should give me something for my birthday.”  — Hmmm…this is a great turn-around for many of us.  Are we asking someone else to do what we could be doing to love and appreciate ourselves? Maybe you need to treat yourself to exactly the sort of gift you’d love.  Afterall, who knows better what you really want than YOU   I know someone who even planned her own surprise party!  Had a blast.

* “I should give my brother something for my birthday.” – Well, there is an interesting thought.  What could you give your brother to celebrate your birthday?  What about the gift of letting it go and not holding this perceived slight against him, and therefore freeing yourself as well from the painful state of resentment?  Can you give the gift of generous forgiveness to him, and for your own benefit, too? Or maybe you send HIM a card telling him all the things you remember that are good about him.

* “I should let God give me something for my birthday.” What do you think God is wanting to give you that is better than any human being could give you today?  Can you see it? Accept it? Be thankful for this gift? Is it a sunset?  The taste of a just  ripe mango?  A baby’s laugh?  Now that you aren’t focusing on what someone else should have done, it allows room to open your eyes to the gift God is handing to you today.  Is there a verse of scripture or phrase from a song or hymn that comes to mind as you pray and ask God what He longs to give you?

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5. Create a comforting image to go with the thought that lifts your mood.  When we create a word picture the thought becomes “stickier” to the mind and it will give the new positive thought more power over the old, painful one.   So, in the example above perhaps you visualize God handing you a sunset wrapped in a bow with your name written across the sky.  Perhaps attached to the sunset is a verse of scripture chosen just for  you – your “birthday card” from heaven.  Whenever you start to think a thought leading to a painful loop (“my brother should have given me a present, he doesn’t love me, he is so unthoughtful” ) switch to this clear  image of God handing you a gift from heaven.   Or perhaps the image is of you giving your brother a gift of a card that says, “I love you without expecting anything in return.”  Or an image of you lovingly and cheerfully buying yourself a bouquet of Gerber daisies or a pair of earrings or a new computer gadget or workshop tool.

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6. Practice Self-Care. Ask yourself, without judgment, “What do I need right now?” And continue to ask this question as you regularly check in on yourself.   This is how we heal bodies and brains after a slight or trauma or loss.   The worse the painful event, the more you need to tend to and pamper yourself.  Do you need to sit in the sunshine and do nothing at all for 30 minutes?  Do you need to nap? A hike? To watch a silly comedy?  Meet a caring friend for lunch?  Go on a mini-vacation?  Browse a bookstore?  Go on a bike ride?  Did you remember to eat well? Take your vitamins or supplements?  Reading Matthew 6 and Philippians 4 and of course Psalm 23, are go-to comforting scriptures for me.  (Try reading old familiar passages in a new version sometimes. It may awaken you to fresh thoughts.) Finally, practice the art of saying no, with grace and without guilt.  Remember: you do not need to burn yourself out in order to be a warm presence for others.

Meme Burn Out

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Suffering & The Hero Within

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During the writing of the book Nourished,  with my daughter, Rachel, I experienced a long season of multiple crises and burn-out from chronic over-giving and over-doing. (Note to self: be careful what you write about or God will take you much deeper into the subject than you want to go!)   But of course, it was in this very valley that I eventually grew stronger and a little wiser and learned something about compassion and joy no matter what. I shared with our readers all that I gleaned about how to nourish a “brain in pain” in that chapter — but I am still an eager student,  curious as to why suffering (given some time) turns some folks heroic, yet makes other  perpetual victims. 

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After watching the fascinating Ken Burns series on The Roosevelts this Fall, I began to read everything I could find on the  lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. (I came to it late, but thanks to my husband’s lifelong interest in WW2 era, I have now caught the history bug in earnest.) Reading a good biography about flawed, complex, great men and women can be more inspiring than essays or devotionals. It is the difference between reading C.S. Lewis describe the four kinds of love versus reading A Grief Observed – the poignant, personal story of falling in love with, then losing, his beloved wife. One tells, one shows. One hits our brain, the other our heart. Opinions are observed, stories are felt.

Before polio struck FDR – at the very beginnings of his political career – he was wealthy, handsome, proud, narcissistic and aloof, even haughty. Spoiled by a doting mother. And in fact, if his pride had been left unchecked, his mother might have been the only person who could love him. However, after being struck down at the prime of his life, his athletic frame crippled over night, he changed. And thank goodness for our nation, he changed for the better. His compassion for other polio sufferers became legendary; his newfound empathy led to personal action. He befriended, helped and encouraged hundreds of fellow polio victims at the rehab-resort in Warm Springs, Georgia, and did not forget them once he was in the White House.

After Hitler began his first unspeakable extermination… burning houses, killing Jews and sending them to concentration camps, FDR was the ONLY world leader to publicly condemn this first wave of horrific crimes against humanity. I can’t help but wonder if his own personal understanding, from his experience with polio and the fight against prejudice of the physically-challenged,  played a part in his courage to speak up for those who could not. His famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!” wasn’t just political rhetoric; it burst from his heart, echoing his personal hard-won victory over defeat and despair. The courage he gleaned from his very personal challenges, would inspired an entire nation with bravery in critical days.

We may never understand the reasons for suffering. But when seen from a broad view of history, I can see that those who allowed suffering to change them, for the better, instead of for the bitter…. became wiser, more compassionate, courageous. It clarified their spiritual purpose. People who allow themselves to be refined in the fire of suffering, eventually discover within themselves the stuff of which heroes are made.

And so what does this mean to us? To you and me, today? It means that when suffering is allowed to have its way in our lives, when we choose to let it soften and strengthen and expand us, instead of harden and weaken and shrink us…. something heroic happens within. In short, suffering can be the very thing that prepares us for, and increases our capacity for our greatest calling.   What seems so random and crippling today, in the long view of your life, maybe the very experience you needed to fulfill your greatest purpose for being put on this earth.

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Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.”

James 1:2-4 The Message

I want to dedicate this blog to my dear friend, Michele Cushatt today, whose courage and spirit while battling cancer inspires me daily. She’s my hero of the hour!

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A bit about our friendship is written in Nourished, and you will love Michele’s upcoming book (to be released in early March), also with Zondervan, titled Undone: A Story of Making Peace With An Unexpected Life)

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Becky’s Guest Post on Ann Voskamp’s Blog today: Praying for a Truer, More Nourishing Story

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Ann-VoskampBig News today!

We are guest-posting at the lovely Ann Voskamp’s blog today.  A story from one of my oldest and dearest friends, Shawn, who had every right to be bitter after losing two beloved husbands, both named Ron, in the span of five years.   One day Shawn emailed me about an image God had given to her that was profoundly beautiful and comforting.  I’ve turned to it time and again in my own dark hours, and shared it with many others as well.  It is always soothing to the soul.

I hope it might bless you as well today.   Simply click on Ann’s picture above or the link below to read more.   

http://www.aholyexperience.com/2015/01/an-invitation-to-a-more-deeply-nourishing-life/


Laughter: The Key to Any Child’s Heart

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(Nourishing Smiles, by Becky Johnson)

Sometimes words just get in the way,  especially when pictures tell their own story so well.  Here is a series of snapshots that my daughter (and co-author), Rachel, took one morning as we sat visiting and clowning  around the dining room table where our big blended family had played a rousing game of poker on New Year’s Eve, the night before.  To set the scene: I had been drinking coffee in the kitchen,  when Rachel’s three-and-a-half year old son Jackson hollered, “Hey Nonny, there are cup holders in here!”  (Meaning, “Come put your coffee in one of the cup holders around the table and play with me.”How could I resist?)

Rach happened to have her camera handy and here is what happened next.

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Victor Borge once said, “The closest distance between two people is a laugh.”  I  have discovered this to be unfailingly true.  Not just with friends, but also with my kids and grandkids. In the excerpt below, from our newly released book,Nourished: A Search for Health, Happiness and a Full Night’s Sleep, I expound a little on the blessing of laughter to both grease the skids and brighten the joy of parenting and grandparenting.

 (Excerpt from Nourished…)

I’ve discovered that a kid will follow you to the ends of the earth if you make them laugh. And I will follow any child who makes me laugh to the ends of the earth as well. There’s something irresistibly contagious and fun about parents and kids who enjoy comedic repartee.

I read that comedian Billy Crystal used to wash and blow dry his two little daughters’ hair. Using the voice of Jose Eber he invented a flamboyant personality he called Mr. Phyllis. He would style their wet their hair into funny forms. Twisting it into a horn for example, he’d say, “This is a good look for you. I call it the unicorn.”

Let’s face it: there is no better audience in the world for adult silliness than children. As tiring as little children are, they give us regular endorphin boosts with their smiles, giggles, and funny antics. When my kids were young I scribbled the cute, funny things they did in a blank book. Over time, I began to look at everything my children did through the eyes of Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry (the 80’s & 90’s version of  today’s Jim Gaffigan), imagining how the latest maddening or messy event might be funny if I wrote about it later.

So the day I found my two-year-old pouring the contents of a large box of powdered milk on the head of his seven-month-old little brother, who sat on the floor blinking like a bewildered snow baby, I grabbed my journal and jotted notes about what I was seeing, before stepping in to clean up the mess. Those few seconds bought me time to think, and often to chuckle, before reacting. Over time, searching for the “funny” in the frustrating became a habit and not only helped me find more fun in mothering, but eventually led to a career in writing humor.

These days I try to “catch and keep” the cute things my grandchildren say and do on Facebook, knowing I have a treasury of their “adorable funnies” to re-read, enjoy and share. One of my favorite funny grandkid quips was when my oldest grandson, Nate, was young and asked me, very seriously, if I knew that TV could “rot your brain.”

“Oh, dear,” I said. “Should I turn it off then?”

He answered, “Yes.” Then, wrinkling his brow he appeared to be studying me with concern. Finally shaking his head slowly, he added, “I just hope it’s not too late.”

For awhile, our grandson Georgie lived with us and it like having a short, bright, happy Forrest Gump in the house. He never tried to be funny, his innocence was complete and sincere. Which made him endearingly hilarious. Even this day-dreamy six year old was impressed by how many things his grown-up grandmother could lose or forget in one day. So he was always on his toes with me. The first week I drove him to Kindergarten, I missed the entrance and had to loop back a couple of times. By the second week, he was sitting up in a state of alert as we neared the school. “Nonny! We’re almost at the turn-in place to my school! Stop! LAND HO!”

I cracked up, remembering he’d been watching a lot of Jake and the Neverland Pirates. “Georgie,” I said pulling over into the drop off zone, “I am sorry Nonny is so bad about forgetting things.”

Always looking for a way to encourage me he cheerfully said, “Actually, Nonny. You are really GOOD at forgetting. You are a GREAT forgetter!”

                        A good laugh is sunshine in the house.  William Makepeace Thackeray

Read more about our book, Nourished, and find ordering information by clicking the link on the picture below:

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Without Autumn, Spring Can’t Come: Lessons in Letting Go

Room with an Autumn View

Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember nothing stays the same for long, not even pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”
― May Sarton

Nourish Your Soul 

(Becky, the Mama)

If I had to sum up what this past year has taught me it is that life is like leaves on a tree. Something buds and is born, then it blossoms, flourishes, changes form and color. Then at some point, begins to fade. The hard part comes where we have no choice but to let go of “what was” — trust the wind and the soil to do “the thing they do” to the leaves given up to their care. This is followed by a time of lying dormant, fallow, at rest, no visible sign of productivity — but much is taking place within the quiet huddle of wintry hibernation.

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And then, in due season, new buds, verdant green, pink blossoms … Spring. That feeling of something beginning, growing again. Bearing fruit, sharing the bounty and shade of your presence with others.

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The greatest lesson in all this, for me, is that without a Letting Go, there is no room for the New Thing that wants to be born. We must not cling too tightly to yesterday least we miss what God is doing today, and the good surprises waiting for us, around the bend, in our tomorrows.

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“Forget about what’s happened;
don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?
There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,
rivers in the badlands.” Isaiah 43: 19-20 The Message

Where are you in the emotional/spiritual cycle of seasons?


Wanted: F-d Up People to Heal the World

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Nourish Your Soul 

(Becky, the mama.)

I enjoyed the most fabulous dinner last night with dear friends. The kind of conversation that lasted five hours, but the time flew so that you never noticed the ticking clock. We’ve shared our deepest wounds and struggles and, thus, our bond is deep. As Heather Kopp noted so perfectly in her book Sober Mercies, “people bond more deeply over shared brokenness than they do shared beliefs.”

I shared Heather’s quote in a small group of folks the other night. One young man, about age thirty said, “That is so true. I just can’t bond with people who are perfect or have their act together. I bond with really f-d up people.” Pause. Then he pointed my way and said, “Like Becky!”

I shrugged, did a Vanna White-style gesture of myself, and say, “Let it be duly noted that I am Exhibit A under ‘F’d- Up People’.” He just kept on talking, earnestly, as my husband Greg and I exchanged glances and struggled not to laugh. Both of us knew this guy really, sincerely meant it as a compliment. Which I am going to cherish always.

It is in this theme, the “bonding of brokenness” that I am getting a hint at why some of our troubles are not instantly healed. Many of us have long-carried a chronic ache — whether it is physical, relational, emotional or spiritual. Whether it is a depressed mood or a bad back, a lost dream or a lost child, we’ve not been able to pray or positive-think this trouble away, though Lord knows we’ve given it our all.

Thornton Wilder’s play, “The Angel Who Troubled the Waters,” is based on the biblical story of the angel who troubled the waters at the pool of Bethesda. Wilder imagines a surprising twist, however, on the familiar scene. As the original story goes, whoever gets to the water first, after the angel stirs it, gets healed.  A  physician who has suffered for years with a “flaw of the heart,” has been waiting for years for his chance at healing, and he finally sees and ceases the opportunity to be first in the  pool!

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But an angel appears to him before he can touch the water and says, “Without your wound where would your power be? It is your very sadness that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In Love’s service only the wounded soldiers can serve. Draw back.”

Later, the person who enters the pool first and was healed rejoices in his good fortune then turns to the physician before leaving and says, “But come with me first, an hour only, to my home. My son is lost in dark thoughts. I — I do not understand him, and only you have ever lifted his mood. Only an hour . . . my daughter, since her child has died, sits in the shadow. She will not listen to us but she will listen to you.”

It is strangely true that “in Love’s service” it often takes one broken person to reach another broken person. And perhaps this sheds some light on why we are not all instantly healed of our messy lives, our messy minds, our messy bodies, our messy hearts.

God can only use Wounded Soldiers in some of the most difficult missions on earth.

When we look at our life that has held its share of grief, pain, failures, struggles and wounds, it helps to know that our pain can serve a purpose; that our troubles equip us for the mission of bonding with and binding up other broken, hurting, f-d up people.

You aren’t cursed; you are called.. . to love and to comfort ever more deeply.

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If your heart is broken, you’ll find God right there;
if you’re kicked in the gut, he’ll help you catch your breath.

Psalm 34:18

He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.

2 Cor 1:4


Nourish Your Soul: A Tall Drink of Peace

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(Becky, the Mama)

In a week like this one, in a world like ours,  sometimes we just need to turn off the TV,  shut down the social media, get still and reach for a tall drink of Peace.

In truth, the only guarantee we have for peace, have ever had really, is peace from God that blankets our minds and heart no matter what is happening around us. (In fact, we are guaranteed that “in this world you WILL have trouble.”)

This peace is found in images of Christ asleep in the boat in the midst of a storm, in birds that don’t worry about where or whether they’ll find food, and flowers that don’t fuss about what they will wear. It is found in not worrying about tomorrow because we only get 24 hours worth of grace at a time, like manna. (Matthew 6).

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If we wait for World Peace, or No More Bad News, or for Our Current Circumstances to Change… before we can relax and experience peace, it will be a very long wait.

“I am leaving you with a gift–peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.” John 24:27 33

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

The best thing we can do in times of overwhelm is find our center of peace in Christ’s example and his words; ask the Holy Spirit to fill us with peace beyond human understanding, and then become Living, Breathing, Relaxed, Trusting, Walking Peace in and to a troubled world.

“Peace, Be Still”

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