Rabbit Hole! – Stop! Cease! Desist! Flee! Avoid at all costs! The old saying, “going down the rabbit hole” essentially means to follow negative thinking patterns until we are swallowed up in the quagmire of negative thinking. This depth of negative thinking produces negative feelings, then negative behavior and can ultimately take us down into the pit of depression. Just telling ourselves or others to stop it doesn’t get the job done. Saying “You shouldn’t feel that way” is an exercise in futility, and in some cases borders on cruelty. They already know it’s wrong and that they should stop it. Therein lies the challenge of stopping such thinking patterns.
As a Man Thinketh in His Heart…
On a positive note, if we can reverse the pattern and think positive thoughts, we can enjoy positive feelings and positive actions. Interestingly, we have often misused a passage of Scripture to demonstrate this positive pattern. While the positive thinking principle is accurate (the reverse of rabbit hole thinking), the passage used doesn’t mean quite what we think.
As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he and so will he become – a biblical truth based on Proverbs 23:7, or so we assume. Here it is in the classic wording of the King James Version: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). That is only half the verse, and the KJV is not the best translation to begin with. Here is the more accurate New American Standard Bible rendition of the whole verse: “For as he thinks within himself, so he is. He says to you, ‘Eat and drink!’ But his heart is not with you.” The verse thus describes a deceptive person who says the right things to your face but in his heart harbors malice. The context demonstrates this point very well. Read it. Philippians 4:8 is a far better verse to use in explaining the accurate principle, and we will examine this verse and its context in the next segment of this two-part article.
But back to avoiding the rabbit hole – how can it be done? We really need the answer, don’t we? If we are honest with ourselves, many of us are plagued by negative thought processes, especially about our own lives and those of our loved ones. We are raised in a society where negative thinking far surpasses positive thinking. Bad news sells, and that is what the media thrives on – to an alarming degree. Many of us grew up in families where negative thinking was the order of the day (most days).
What – Me Paranoid?
Having a negative thought is one thing; dwelling on it causes that thought to multiply into a whole host of other similar thoughts. If we catch ourselves quickly enough, we can stay out of the rabbit hole, but that’s much easier said than done. Once in a ministry staff meeting in a foreign country, I was describing the dangers of negative thought processes, and made the statement that we often play out bad scenes in our minds that are based on no more than our own fears and imaginations. One brother quickly said, “I don’t just play out scenes; I play the whole movie over and over in my mind!” My wife has often told me that I imagine worst case scenarios and then experience the same emotions that would accompany the real thing had it actually occurred. Sadly, I think she is right. I have frequently been a rabbit hole thinker for most of my life. I can say that such thinking patterns ran in my family, which is true, but that doesn’t make it less damaging.
Rabbit hole thinking is a form of paranoia, and several forms of paranoia are found in my family of origin on the maternal side. Among these forms would be hypochondria, and its accompanying twin, psychosomatic symptoms and ills. Anxiety attacks are often a part of this particular cycle. I learned early on to avoid reading about the symptoms of diseases, because I could develop them within minutes. Thankfully, I also learned how to handle this tendency reasonably well, which I won’t take the time to describe here.
And then you have the apocalyptic paranoia, in which conspiracy theories abound. The world is surely about to go up in smoke! I could say more, but I’ve already exposed enough of the weirdness of my family tree and of myself in the process! Rabbit hole thinking takes many forms and it leads to something other than reality. It is worry gone awry. In that regard, I once said to an elder’s wife decades ago that her pattern of worrying about everything didn’t make sense because the old adage says that 95% of what we worry about never comes true anyway. “Precisely the point,” said she, “just think how my worrying helps keep so much from happening!” Funny, but not really funny. Negative thinking does not come from God, and that leaves only one other choice as to its source. So, how can we stop it?
A Book That Might Help
The field of psychotherapy aimed at helping with such negative life patterns is called “cognitive therapy.” It is based on the concept that the way a person thinks and feels, then affects the way they behave. These effects of going down the rabbit hole are undisputedly accurate. How to stop the pattern is the real issue.
Years ago, a psychologist friend recommended a book written by a cognitive therapist. The book was “The Feeling Good Handbook” by David Burns. It was a long book and contained some very good insights into how humans think and process that thinking. Here are a few highlights from my reading of the book, including how we think and how to effect change in our thinking. You may find these highlights very helpful – if you are willing to spend the necessary time in seeking to first understand them and then putting his recommended exercise into practice consistently. It involves a two-part process described next.
Ten Forms of Twisted Thinking
- All-or-nothing thinking − If a situation falls short of perfect, you see it as a total failure.
- Overgeneralization − You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words such as “always” or “never” when you think about it.
- Mental filter − You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively.
- Discounting the positive.
- Jumping to conclusions − You interpret things negatively when there are not facts to support your conclusion. There are two basic types of “jumping” —Mind reading − you assume the negatives that they may be thinking; and,Fortune-telling − you predict that things will turn out badly.
- Magnification − You exaggerate the importance of your problems and shortcomings, or you minimize the importance of your desirable qualities.
- Emotional reasoning − You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are.
- “Should statements” − You tell yourself that things should be the way you hoped or expected them to be. “Should statements” that are directed against yourself lead to guilt and frustration. Should statements that are directed against other people or the world in general lead to anger and frustration.
- Labeling − Labeling is an extreme form of the all-or-nothing thinking. You may also label others, leaving you feeling hostile and hopeless about improving things.
- Personalization and blame − Personalization occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control. Some people do just the opposite, blaming other people or their circumstances and overlooking ways that they might be contributing to the problem.
Daily Mood Log
- Describe the upsetting event in your own words.
- Record your negative feelings about it.
- Write out your negative thoughts and estimate your belief in each one on a scale of 1-10.
- Identify the distortion in each automatic thought using the forms of twisted thinking.
- Substitute more realistic thoughts and estimate your belief in each one on a scale of 1-10.
- Final outcome – re-rate your belief in each automatic thought (1-10) and circle the phrase that best describes how you feel now:
- Not at all better
- Somewhat better
- Quite a bit better
- A lot better
While I found the book to be helpful in some cases, it didn’t seriously affect my long-term thinking patterns. I won’t blame that on the book but accept the possibility that my own failure to stick with the recommended Daily Mood Log process was the cause. I think that Burns’ approach could be helpful especially in cases where we are at a loss to figure out what is bothering us. I have written a journaling piece (just for me) with several iterations, entitled, “What in the World is Bugging Me Now?” Perhaps Burns’ approach would have helped me at least figure out the answer to the question posed in the title. I have found that prayer walks (speaking out loud to God) have been helpful in identifying the root causes of a confused psyche, and journaling has been even more helpful.
If you are a rabbit hole thinker, give the ideas I gleaned from Burns a try. They just might help you. I know that they ring true to me in principle as a way of helping identify wrong thinking. How much they help in making a permanent break with faulty thinking will likely vary from person to person. I do believe they are worth a try. However, about a year ago, I discovered another very practical approach that has helped me the most. That will be described in the second part of this two-part series (coming soon). Until next time…