When you’re anxious, you might feel like your thoughts and emotions are running wild. Known as Automatic Negative Thoughts or ANTs, these types of thoughts occur when we’re anxious – and they are typically negative, untrue, and full of fear and worry. These thoughts need to be met with truth.
Your thoughts are like a conductor guiding the orchestra of your emotions, so you can help manage your anxiety by controlling your thoughts. In fact, one of the primary ways God changes us is by helping us change our thoughts. The Bible says, “Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (Romans 12:2 NLT). The apostle Paul saw the benefit of this. After telling the Philippians not to be anxious (Philippians 4:6-7), he then focused on their thoughts:
“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.”
(Philippians 4:8 NLT)
Below is a practical exercise from our Keys for Living book on Anxiety. Use this exercise to help focus and control your thoughts when you’re anxious. Think through and answer the questions related to the 8 characteristics listed in Philippians 4:8.
What is true?
- This refers to whatever corresponds to reality. Jesus said that God’s Word is truth (John 17:17), so identify passages from the Bible that speak to your situation and to God’s character. Fill your mind with His Word and meditate on it regularly until it becomes an automatic response.
- Ask yourself: What is true and accurate about my situation? What does God say I should do (or not do)? What promises of God or attribute of God can speak to my situation?
“I have chosen the way of truth; I have set Your ordinances before me” (Psalm 119:30 HCSB).
What is honorable?
- Also translated as “noble,” this refers to someone or something that is dignified or worthy of respect – the kind of character that leaders in the church should possess (see 1 Timothy 3:8,11; Titus 2:2). Being honorable relates to qualities of honesty, sincerity, integrity, faithfulness, self-control and trustworthiness.
- Ask yourself: What is the respectful thing to do in my situation? Is there someone I trust and respect who I can talk to about my anxiety? What can I do that will honor the Lord?
“Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me” (Psalm 50:15).
What is right?
- Also translated “just,” this refers to what aligns with God’s character, law, or standards. Anxiety can cloud our thoughts and intensify our emotions, so we may be tempted to do whatever “feels right” to relieve anxiety. But what feels right and what is right are often different.
- Ask yourself: What does God say is the right thing to do in my circumstance? What will happen if I do what is right – and what will happen if I do what is wrong or unwise? Who can help me do what’s right?
“Do what is right and good in the Lord‘s sight” (Deuteronomy 6:18).
What is pure?
- This refers to whatever is holy or free from sin; whatever is uncorrupted and untainted by sin. God often uses trials and difficult circumstances to purify us and refine our character (see 1 Peter 1:6–7). Anxiety can lead us to God (running to Him for help and strength) or away from God (seeking to control things; seeking relief through escapism, busyness, drugs, alcohol, pornography, etc.). Allow your fears and worries to drive you to God.
- Ask yourself: Is my anxiety leading me to God – to His presence, His Word, His people? In what ways is my anxiety leading me away from God – tempting me to doubt God, control others, or sin?
“I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return” (Philippians 1:10 NLT).
What is lovely?
- This refers to whatever is beautiful or attractive; whatever promotes love and peace. When you’re anxious, you may be tempted to believe that God doesn’t love you, or you may be tempted to act unloving toward others. An accurate understanding of love begins with God’s love, and the Bible is not short on descriptions of His love. God says that He has “loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3). His Word is clear that nothing in all creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).
- Ask yourself: In what ways has the Lord shown His love to me? What do I love about God? How can I show love to God, to others, and to myself?
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4–8).
What is admirable?
- Also translated as “commendable” or “of good repute” or “good report,” this refers to things that are well spoken of or have a good reputation. When we’re anxious, our thoughts often run through a filter of fear, doubt, skepticism, and worry. We tend to see things that are bad, negative, or destructive instead of seeing what is good, positive, constructive – or commendable.
- Ask yourself: Who can I speak well of or compliment? What aspects of my situation are good or commendable? Who has helped me (or is currently helping me) and deserves to be thanked?
“When people commend themselves, it doesn’t count for much. The important thing is for the Lord to commend them” (2 Corinthians 10:18 NLT).
What is excellent?
- The final two qualities listed in Philippians 4:8, “excellent and worthy of praise” act as a summary for the other qualities. Excellence refers to moral goodness or virtue. We tend not to associate anxiety with morality, but anxiety can lead to immoral behavior if we seek to relieve our worries and fears through ungodly means.
- Ask yourself: Are there any immoral thoughts or actions I need to confess and change? What morals, virtues, or godly characteristics do I need to work on, with God’s help?
“Make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone” (2 Peter 1:5–7 NLT).
What is praiseworthy?
- Many things are worthy of praise – a job well done, good food, a helpful friend, our family members, co-workers, and most of all, the Lord. When you consider God’s work in creating you, sustaining you, saving you, and giving you a hope-filled future, praise is the appropriate response. We have much to praise God for. Praise often leads to joy, which is a positive emotion to battle the negative feelings of anxiety.
- Ask yourself: What am I thankful for in my situation? What things can I praise God for (relationships, spiritual and material blessings, knowledge, health, etc.)?
“I will praise the Lord at all times. I will constantly speak his praises … I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears” (Psalm 34:1, 4 NLT).
The Greatest Thought You Can Have
When seeking to control your anxious thoughts, remember that Jesus is the greatest thought you can have. That is why God says to “fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1). Jesus is the most true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy person in the world. And the great news is that Jesus is for you. He is with you. And He even dwells in you. When anxiety weighs you down, Jesus can lift you up and raise your thoughts to Him and the glorious future He has for you.
“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.
For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ, who is your life, appears,
then you also will appear with him in glory.”
Helpful Resources on Anxiety
Keys for Living Book – Anxiety
Does fear and worry overwhelm you? Do you constantly wonder “what if?” There’s grace for the anxious heart. This book provides insights on the nature and causes of anxiety as well as practical guidance from God’s Word on how to manage anxiety in mind, body, and spirit.
Video Course on Anxiety
In this video course, you’ll learn biblical truths and practical guidance on general anxiety as well as some of the clinical aspects of anxiety. This course discusses common characteristics and causes of anxiety, various types of anxiety disorders, misconceptions about anxiety and faith, and ways to manage anxiety mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.