Managing Thoughts and Emotions

– Rebecca Preston, MA, Spiritual Director

It’s been one of those seasons of life.  You know the kind, when reality rears its ugly head and many of our dreams and expectations have been dashed against the rocks of life. I have spent many a day during this season, mourning the choices I’ve made, and wondered how I fell so short of discerning God’s calling in my life.

As often happens in this season, I have gained some insight.  What I’ve noticed is there has been a casualty of this place I’ve been stuck in.  My thought life has become a victim.  Why?  Because I have allowed my thoughts to run free.  Rather than experiencing a sense of freedom, my emotions have gone on a rollercoaster ride – a stomach dropping feeling that I just don’t like! The good thing about this whole experience is my attention has been drawn to the relationship between my thought life and my emotions.  Somehow there seems to be a connection between the two.

I read a quote recently by Ken Boa which he posted on Facebook:

“Our mind holds the key, and Romans 12:2 reminds us that we are transformed by its renewing. Ironically, though, almost every sermon I hear says, “This is what you ought to do. . . .” We hear that we ought to live out the faith of Old Testament heroes or we should do the things that Jesus told us to; our churches ought to be organized a certain way, and we ought to adhere to certain practices. But we don’t hear very much about how we ought to think, how we should manage our own will or allow our minds to focus on—the life that is lived inside our heads and hearts.” (italics mine)

Dallas Willard has quite a bit to say about our thought life in his book Renovation of the Heart.  On page 96, he makes this statement: “Interestingly, you can’t evoke thoughts by feeling a certain way, but you can evoke and to some degree control feelings by directing your thoughts.”

Between the two of them, an intriguing way of living is suggested.  They both agree there is this link between our thought life and our emotions.  They seem to say we are not helpless in the mix.  We can live in such a way that by managing our thought life, we can also, in some sense, manage our emotions and feelings.

Of course, this begs the question: How do we manage our thoughts?

Well, I can only share with you what I have learned this past couple of months in this season of transition from dreams to reality.  I have been using several practices to bring the discipline of managing my thoughts into my daily rhythm.

Just a caveat:  None of this can be done without the help of the Holy Spirit guiding, leading, and comforting me through these practices.


I’ve known for some time how scripture works on me.  It calms me, and I believe, it re-routes my thoughts.  Lately, I have used 2 Corinthians 10:5 (NIV) to help me move my thoughts to a better place:

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

Recently, I read a blog from a woman I’ve been following for some time.  She spoke of the patterns in her life that she has intentionally cultivated.  Much of what she writes about is based on a Rhythm of Life that works for her.  In this blog, she wrote about her practice of saying Psalm 23 every day.  It grounds her and helps to set the mood for her day.  I liked the idea of it.  So I began reciting the 23rd Psalm anytime I felt my thoughts were running out of control.

Viola!   My anxious thoughts drifted away.  My attention was diverted from whatever fearful or worrisome emotion I had been experiencing to a place of calmness.

Now I’m not saying the use of the 23rd Psalm is some magical key that brought my thought life into discipline, but there is something about the use of scripture in our life that has a healing, almost defensive, quality to it.  I do think the practice of memorizing scripture and using it at strategic moments in our lives is much like what Jesus did when he was being tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11).  Jesus quoted scripture to deflect the temptations away from him.  He put on the “Armor of God” just like how Paul, in Ephesians 6, describes scripture as a defensive strategy.

Many of us have been taught that scripture is useful, but how many of us turn to is at these times and use it effectively.  Scripture is more powerful than we often give it credit.

Centering Prayer:

Another practice that I find helpful in trying to manage thoughts is prayer.  I try to incorporate Centering Prayer into the beginning of each day.  Centering prayer is a prayer practice which is being with God, but without using words.  There is something about being silent, inviting God to come into our minds, and allowing our spirit to be ministered by His Spirit.  We are actually training our thought life in this practice.  I believe this prayer fosters the discipline of quieting our thoughts, and as a result, has a restorative quality to it.

I envision Jesus heading to the hills for prayer.  It seems like much of the time might have been spent in simple, quiet communion with His father.  Out of this time he returned to his ministry refreshed and focused.  Jesus knew that this time with God was precious and gave him the power he needed to minister to the people.

Spiritual Friends:

One other helpful practice, is talking with someone I trust about the issues of my life.  Whether it be a wise spiritual friend, a counselor, or a Spiritual Director, there is something about being able to voice the thoughts and emotions happening in my life that help to put everything into perspective.  Being heard and receiving counsel from someone who knows us and has our best interest in mind is an incredible gift.

These practices, the use of scripture to quiet my mind, centering prayer to quiet my spirit, and spiritual friendship which has a physical component, meet the needs of my whole personhood.  I find them to be incredibly helpful as I attempt to discipline my thought life.  In turn, they aid in refusing to even get on the rollercoaster of emotions.

I’m not out of this season yet, but I have found these practices to be helpful in monitoring my thought life, and I have found my emotions have become far more balanced.

I pray they are as useful for you.