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. This is described in Part 2, so keep reading!
Avoiding the Rabbit Hole — Part 2
In the first part of this series, we hopefully identified what “rabbit hole” thinking is and gave some practical solutions to consider applying, notably some ideas I gleaned years ago from David Burns’ book, the “Feeling Good Handbook.” This present article will focus on a practical technique I discovered in December of 2017 that has helped me far more than I expected at its beginning. In the first article, I was honest about my own inner struggles with negative thinking, a process that has significantly affected my emotions and my actions. But as promised, this second part will describe my discovery of what has proved to be a much more effective thinking path, for me at least.
Am I an Actor?
Like most of us, a lot of my faulty thinking is kept under lock and key, and although it definitely affects my feelings, it is observable by others fairly seldom (I think). Seen one way, I “fake it” and act better than I feel. (Don’t most of us?) Viewed a more positive way, I try to do what I believe God wants me to do in spite of how I feel. Obedience to him is never wrong. There is definitely some credence to the idea that it is easier to act yourself into a better way of feeling than it is to try and feel yourself into a better way of acting.
Of course, if we are always “acting” and not dealing with underlying negative thinking and feelings to the contrary, we could accurately be called a hypocrite, a play-actor. Folks who aren’t at least trying hard to change bad thinking and emotions can’t remain hidden forever. They don’t strike us as the “real deal.” We may not know what is wrong with them, but we do sense that something is amiss. I assume they sense the same in us when we allow ourselves to remain in a bad place for too long.
Hopefully we will love them enough to ask them the right questions and start trying to help them by essentially helping them to help themselves. Hopefully others will love us enough to ask us the right questions and start helping us to help ourselves. They, or we, may well be struggling with what we are calling rabbit hole thinking, and this thinking/feeling/acting process needs to be interrupted and solutions sought. Others can call our attention to the need for help and start the ball rolling, but gaining that help is ultimately between us and God.
A Very Helpful Passage
Of course, for years I have taught against negative thinking and in favor of positive thinking. Here is my favorite passage in that regard, one that I have preached on many times. It is chock-full of practical principles about the right kind of “mind control.”
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Here are a few quick reminders of the more obvious practical principles found in the passage:
- Verse 4 – Decide to rejoice in spite of the circumstances; it is a command and thus a decision that can be made.
- Verse 5 – Stay calm and trust that the Lord is nearby just waiting to help you rejoice.
- Verse 6 – Don’t be anxious about anything, but pray about everything. And don’t forget to give thanks for past blessings, for the past is the key to the present and future. If God has gotten you through your past challenges, why would he stop now?
- Verse 7 – God has a peace to give you that is better felt than told; you just need to claim it by following what he is saying here.
- Verse 8 – The specific type of thinking that keeps you out of rabbit holes and in the peace that God provides.
- Verse 9 – Hang around spiritual people and imitate them; God and peace will always be nearby when you follow these principles.
Much more could be gleaned from this passage, but I will leave that up to you. It is a grand passage on which to meditate – often! But again, for me the question was not in simply knowing what was right regarding my thinking patterns, but rather in how to consistently practice what I knew to be right. Based on verse 8 in the above passage, I have often encouraged the concept of quickly changing one’s mind when negative thinking first enters it. And I knew that such thinking had to be replaced with better thinking, for our minds cannot stop thinking about something. My oft-used illustration was that instead of thinking about a black cow (negatives), start thinking about a white horse (positives). But my failure to find a more complete and effective way to do this was due to not discovering a specific path to follow out of the maze.
The approach I discovered seemed at first to be too simplistic to actually work – but it did and has continued to work for the past year. I have described it to a number of individuals and a few days ago, one of them wrote to ask for the details again. He said that the approach had helped him initially, but now the details involved were getting a bit hazy in his memory. His request led me to write this article and the one that preceded it.
A Real Rabbit Hole
Last December a year ago, I was spending a few days by myself at what we call our “camp.” It is a little house across the street from a lake about a hundred miles from our main residence in the Dallas area. I found this place while renting a small guest house of a couple who are now our lake neighbors. Long ago in my writing career, I discovered that being alone in a solitary place with a good view of nature provided the most conducive writing situation possible. From time to time through the years when doing very concentrated writing, I have rented such places in remote hotels or similar locations. Finding our own such place at a surprisingly low price (it is remote!) has been a wonderful blessing. Most of my writing takes place here, and this article is no exception.
But back to the story. I was here alone doing some writing last December and in the midst of it, doing a lot of soul searching and praying. I recognized that I was not in a good spiritual place, in that negative thinking was proving almost impossible to escape, especially in a few specific areas. I’m not sure exactly what they were, but I suspect aging and death were on the list (they often are, especially at my age). I happened to walk around the back of our lake place and when glancing under a little porch, saw a sizable hole in the ground. I’m not sure what type animals are using it to crawl under our house, but for some reason, “rabbit hole” popped into my mind. It gave me a name for my recent thinking processes, and even provided a visual to use in my then newly discovered solution.
As I went on my early morning prayer walk, the pieces of this puzzle I am about to describe fell into place very quickly. Let me warn you that it may be challenging to take these pieces seriously, precisely because it all seems too simple. It is simple, but in the spiritual realm, simple rarely means easy. Here are the basics of my process.
Say It, Say It!
When negative thoughts start entering my mind, I actually say (out loud if I am alone, otherwise to myself): Rabbit Hole – Stop! Rabbit Hole – Stop! At this point, I immediately seek a diversion in my thinking. I make a quick choice as to whether I need to employ what I call “escape thinking” or “spiritual thinking” for that diversion. That choice depends on the type of subject matter entering my mind and the emotional impact it is having on me. It will also depend on my location at the time. For example, if I am out and about, diversions are readily available in what I simply look at and start thinking about. That would be the escape type thinking to simply divert me from black cow thinking and on to white horse thinking. On the other hand, if I am alone or awake in the middle of the night, I have to figure out the type of diversion needed and available, taking into consideration how much my emotions are being aroused. The more alone I am and the more emotional the subject entering my mind, the more spiritual the diversion will need to be. Here are some ideas for initiating white horse thinking in each of the two realms:
Simple Diversions (All used only after a quick reminder, “RABBIT HOLE – STOP!” and a brief prayer of surrender.)
- If out and about, just looking at other things and thinking about them can provide the needed diversion – people, houses, cars, trees, animals, clouds, etc.
- If alone and stationary, then playing games on my phone or on the computer always helps to some degree in breaking the downward spiral into dysfunctional thinking.
- I have pictured playing a familiar golf course from the past when I still played golf, but that could be done with imagined scenes from fishing or driving or walking or anything else that would help me think about something besides my problems.
- Trying to remember names of people or financial issues or a variety of other things works too, especially now with my short-term memory being more challenging. Almost any kind of thinking about details is good for aging brains!
- I’m sure with time, I will think of other ideas that I already in fact use but don’t now remember, or I will figure out new ways of diverting me from the rabbit hole thinking. You and I both can break our old, bad habits of negative thinking and replace it with something much better, even if only intended for a temporary diversion from negativity. Enough diversions enable better patterns to begin developing.
- Bible passages – either the content of some or quoting them directly (hence the value of memorizing the most appropriate verses for the things that normally get to me emotionally).
- Bible concepts – thinking of how certain principles apply or could apply to me, and how they might apply to others.
- The latter application leads into thinking of possible ideas for teaching or preaching, whether a sermon, article or a possible book.
- Another idea would be to think of Bible characters and the stories about them in the Scriptures.
- Spiritual songs – a wonderful soul-comforting builder of my faith and a readily available diversion most of the time. I keep a thumb drive in both of our cars filled with my favorite spiritual songs and my computer and headphones are always nearby when at home or at the camp.
- Obviously, simply praying can help at any time and sometimes, I must fall on my knees alone to pray more urgently and earnestly. But those latter times actually don’t come that often once our thinking patterns start to go in better directions. Waking up worried in the middle of the night may well be one of those latter times, by the way.
Not Stuffing Emotions
Neither of these diversion lists is intended to be exhaustive. I’m sure you can think of others that may be more helpful to you, but these provide some good suggestions with which to begin. I’ve been very surprised at how effective this approach has been in helping me break out of rabbit hole thinking in real time, and how effective it has been in helping my overall thought patterns change. Some might be wondering if I am advocating stuffing our feelings. It’s a question worth asking, but the answer is no. I don’t stuff my negative feelings, although some should just be diverted and forgotten. Others need more examination, and if they involve real problems, solutions should be sought. I can sense pretty quickly which problem areas are real and which are simply worldly anxieties. The former I mentally put in my “prayer box” and save them until later, usually for my morning prayer walks and journaling on my computer.
If those real problems involve only my personal thought processes, I surrender them to God and later pray and contemplate possible solutions when I open my prayer box. If those problems involve other people about whom I am concerned, I pray about them and when it seems appropriate (after seeking God’s guidance), I contact them or someone close to them to see what I can do to help beyond prayer. As you can see, I don’t avoid dealing with real problems – quite the contrary. But I don’t allow those problems to interrupt me and take on a life of their own by invading my thinking and setting up camp for the day (or days). I take charge of my thinking and thinking schedule, in other words.
When my thoughts start speeding up my heartbeat and raising my blood pressure, even a little, it’s time to say (loudly): Rabbit Hole – Stop! Rabbit Hole – Stop! And then after a quick prayer of surrender, I quickly decide what merits being mentally placed in my prayer box for later and then it’s on to a diversion that works at the time. This funny little approach has helped me put passages like Philippians 4 into practice like never before. It may seem a bit of an odd approach to you, but considering that it has helped me seriously change a lifetime habit of going down the rabbit hole for a year now, I suggest that you try it. Let me know if it works for you!
Avoiding the Rabbit Hole — Part 3
I wrote what I initially intended to be a two-part series. However, I had a hunch that something else might end up in the pipeline. Whenever you write an article giving advice and using yourself as a positive example, one thing is relatively certain: you are going to be tested, and tested soon. For decades, I have taught and written about the need to have a surrendered faith. The second book I wrote was “The Victory of Surrender,” with the first edition published back in 1995. However, I had taught many lessons about surrender prior to writing about it. A point I always made was that deciding to surrender and committing that decision to the Lord meant that a test was likely to come shortly thereafter. (Please don’t view that as a negative! It is of God for our good.) Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting and temptation – right after his baptism.
That same principle works when we give spiritual advice with ourselves as the example of how it should work. Just before I posted the second article about avoiding the rabbit hole of going down the whirlpool of negative thinking, my tests came: three in one day. One only involved me and the remaining two involved other people with whom I have close relationships and concerns about. I caught myself starting to go down that rabbit hole a number of times, but then did what I wrote about. Rabbit hole – Stop! Rabbit hole – Stop! Then I used some of the diversions in thinking described in the second article. It worked, but it wasn’t easy. The things tempting me to go down the rabbit hole were emotional-laden things.
As I took these things out of my prayer box the next morning to address them with God, I decided to journal about a them. Writing is a very helpful process to use in both identifying and controlling troubling thoughts. My very spiritual wife, Theresa, has written her prayers down on paper for years, virtually every day. By her own admission, she is not as in touch with her emotions as I am and writing for her is a must in her mind. In earlier years, I thought (and said) that since I was in touch with my emotions, prayer walks in which I talked aloud to God would be sufficient. Most of the time they were. In spite of that, Theresa would occasionally remind me that she believed I was missing out by not writing my prayers down. I wasn’t a good listener.
Becoming a Journaler
Then around the time of our October birthdays, in 1998, we went to a Bed and Breakfast in Nantucket for two or three nights. It was designed to be a getaway to read a book about improving our marriage and work on making improvement a reality. Once checked in, we had a significant relationship “bump” within the first hour. As usual, it was mostly me and this one was bigger than the norm for us. It was surprisingly disturbing to me emotionally. To say it was an overreaction on my part would be a nice way to put it. We talked it through that same evening and were reasonably resolved, she more than me. The next morning, I went on a long prayer walk to figure out why I overreacted. It didn’t work; no solution was forthcoming. Nor did a couple more prayer walks the next day or two help identify or solve my confusion. I was not only perplexed; I was still disturbed emotionally.
Then came the ferry boat ride back to Cape Cod as the first segment of our return home. The date was October 29, because the large TV screen on the boat was showing John Glenn’s space shuttle blast-off with him as the oldest person ever to enter space at age 77. I did watch the launch, which was exciting, but for the next two hours I was typing earnestly on my laptop. I was doing what my wife had suggested for years, journaling with God. It was a wonderfully helpful endeavor. God used it to help me get my confused thinking and feelings sorted out. It was like a birthday of sorts, a beginning point for me becoming a regular journaler (my spell check resisted the term, but it is legitimate).
Inserting a Second Step
I have written previously about my almost daily gratitude journaling, something I started near the beginning of this year (2018) in imitation of something my good friend, Mark Mancini, said he was doing. But as I wrote after my recent testing time, my journaling was more like the one on that ferry boat 20 years ago. However, it was different, in that I wasn’t trying to sort out my thinking and feeling; I was trying to find better ways of looking at those three things that were disturbing me. Often just identifying my issues, followed by surrendering them in prayer, does the trick. I sensed that I needed to do something different and perhaps learn something new that could help me, and even help others. Ultimately, I suppose it still involves surrender, but as a third step and not a second one.
I began thinking about questions that I could ask myself that might help me look at the troubling situations more spiritually. Here are some questions that came to mind (and cautions with them):
- What are the facts here – not possibilities, assumptions, or feelings – but concrete facts?
- How might I look at these facts in a different way than normal, looking at possibilities that they are not as bad as they seem due to faulty interpretation of them on my part?
- What are the other possibilities other than the one you are quick to assume (which may well be a worst-case scenario)?
- Do I have all of the related information about these facts that might make them less serious than I might otherwise assume?
- Even if the facts are as bad as they seem to be, how might God be planning to use them for my good and for the good of others involved in the scenarios? With him, short-term pain is almost always a part of the long-term gain that he provides.
- Regarding the two issues that involve the problems of others who are close to me relationally, should I just recognize that everyone has to make their own choices and decide on their own responses, and that such is beyond my control? And, those choices and the consequences that follow are their responsibility, not mine. (I think that is about how God deals with us humans, isn’t it?)
- All in all, just how likely is it that I am weighing these situations more heavily than the facts I know right now warrant?
I’m sure you can think of additional questions, but we need to start questioning our questions a lot more than we do and doubting our doubts more than we do. If we proceed a step at a time based on what we do actually know to be factual, we can avoid coming to conclusions that are simply assumptions based on fears. Looking for the positive possibilities is a good exercise. I thought of an illustration I read years ago, written by the old commentator of yesteryear, Matthew Henry. Upon being robbed, he sought to do what I’m trying to describe here.
Here is his quote: ““Let me be thankful, first, because he never robbed me before; second, because although he took my purse, he did not take my life; third, because although he took all I possessed, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed.” Almost all things we view as bad could have been worse, and if looked at in a positive light, they might well be good.
An Enjoyable Process!
The day those three challenges came, my diversions worked in keeping me from going down the rabbit hole. Journaling the following morning about those concerns that I had locked in my prayer box overnight then helped me gain a more realistic perspective about them, and then led to their surrender. Perhaps this is somewhat repetitive of what I wrote in the first two segments about avoiding the rabbit hole. Even if true, it is yet another way of looking at the principles that work to keep us out of that dreaded chasm of negative thinking gone to seed. I’ve enjoyed the process and enjoyed describing it for your consideration. Negative thinking can be diverted and dealt with successfully, and more importantly, negative thinking patterns can be replaced with much better ones. Let’s stay on God’s paths in our thinking and doing. They never lead to rabbit holes!