Can You Change Your Emotions by Changing Your Thoughts?

What’s Your Context?

I watched the tiger.

He was getting closer. He was pacing back and forth. Then he looked my way and stopped. We locked eyes in a stare.

But my body didn’t react.

I wasn’t afraid. Just amused.

Because the tiger and I were both at the zoo—and he was on the other side of glass—I knew I was safe.

But if I encounter the same tiger this afternoon in my back yard? My response would be fear and panic.

My mind understands the difference in context. My thoughts control the emotional response in each scenario.

Context matters.

When Emotions Aren’t Based on Facts

A few years ago I read this about contexts:

“Contexts are learned. Thus most of what provokes emotion is learned. And these emotional contexts are generally learned in a single-minded way.”
– Ellen Langer, Mindfulness

Think how you react to God.

Maybe the thought of God invokes feelings of anger. Fear. Or even shame. Maybe indifference.

Perhaps it’s because of the context of an absent father. Or because of harmful church experiences. Or unanswered questions after a tragedy.

But our initial perceptions about God aren’t always accurate. The emotions we feel, originating from our contexts, may not be based on accurate facts.

If you get a phone message from your doctor asking you to schedule an appointment immediately, you will likely feel uncomfortable emotions. Not because scheduling an appointment is stressful in itself, but because the thoughts you’re reading into the context are stressful: Is something wrong with me? Do I have cancer? What will this mean?

“Our thoughts create the context which determines our feelings.”
– Ellen Langer

Our emotions radiate from our thoughts.

If we’ve thought of God as a stalker waiting to catch us in one wrong move then bang!, or if we’ve thought he could care less about our lives, or that he doesn’t exist at all, we’re not likely to seek him and discover the full life he has for us.

And we will surely have a hard time loving such a God.

So what do we do?

Seek the Truth

Get the right context.

  • Reexamine our old beliefs.
  • Look around at creation.
  • Study to see if our thoughts line up with who God says he is.
  • Talk to those who have a satisfying relationship with God.

To avoid unnecessary prolonged stress, get to the truth.

God encourages mindfulness, not ignorance (2 Timothy 2:15). He stirs us to renew our minds, to change the way we think, to come into alignment with what is real and true (Romans 12:2). 

We aren’t to avoid painful thoughts, but we don’t need to indulge in untrue thoughts. 

Granted, it’s not always up to us; sometimes our minds need medical help and outside reinforcement. That’s different. Our minds can break, just like a bone, and we can’t just “think” our way into healing. Untrue thoughts hurt us in many ways, often unaware.

Seek the truth. Even if it’s a hard truth. If a tiger really is in our backyard, we need to know so we can respond accordingly. Then if we discover he’s contained in a cage, we can relax and be unafraid.

By changing our thinking to align with the truth (as much as our limited minds are capable of discovering truth anyway), we’ll still feel the range of emotions. And that’s okay. But ultimately we can find acceptance and freedom within those emotions.

And with freedom comes life—a life that is full with a God who is good (John 10:10).

Have you ever changed your emotions by changing your thoughts? Please share in the comments.

26 thoughts on “Can You Change Your Emotions by Changing Your Thoughts?

  1. bill (cycleguy)

    Hi Lisa! Dr. Lee Warren has a podcast based around this very idea. he is a brain neurosurgeon who is also a Christ-follower. I do believe how we think and what we think does affect how we act and react. Good thoughts today.

  2. Maree Dee

    What a great post! I absoultly agree. Our thoughts are so important and it is so good to remember our feelings are not facts. We need to check them out. I have worked with people who’s minds struggle with there thoughts dictating their feelings and I have to say change is possible.

  3. Laurie

    Such a wonderful post, Lisa! I feel as though in the last few years, the conversation I have been having with this community of Christian bloggers has indeed been my “Talk to those who have a satisfying relationship with God.” You all have helped me to grow my relationship with God in ways I never expected. A heartfelt thank you!

  4. Lynn

    Our brains and minds are so interesting on how they create thought! I’m reading a book called “You Are Not Your Brain” that teaches how our brain creates reactions that are untrue. The good news is God also created our brain to be able to change, and mindfulness to do such a thing! I’m thankful of His word and the Holy Spirit’s wise counsel to see the real Truth!

  5. Bev @ Walking Well With God

    Since I suffer from an anxiety disorder, when anxious feelings rise up I ask myself 3 qualifying questions: 1. Does this thought make me anxious? 2. Is this thought negative or condemning? 3. Does this thought line up with what I know to be True in scripture? If the answers are “Yes,” “Yes,” and “No,” then I know I need to adjust my emotions to fit the truth. Emotions can lie, big time, but God’s Word is always solid and true. Great post!
    Bev xx

  6. Rebecca Hastings

    Getting to His Truth is the only thing that truly changes my emotional tangled mess! And I’m also learning that sometimes my emotions aren’t a mistake. He created me to feel, and He uses those feelings to bring me to Him again and again.

  7. Barbara Harper

    I had a vivid example of this when COVID first started reaching epidemic proportions. I became anxious, but reminded myself that God was in control, that my life was in his hands , that even if he allowed me to get the virus, he’d be with me. Grounding myself in his truth helped settle the anxiety (though I still hope I don’t get it and it all goes away as soon as possible).

  8. Beth

    Wow, Lisa! This is great! The context truly does matter to the intensity and type of emotional reactions we have. But what I really love is how you’ve challenged us to anchor our emotions in the truth. Nothing could be steadier and more secure! I’ll be pinning, my friend!

  9. Wemi Omotosho

    This is a great post! “To avoid unnecessary prolonged stress, get to the truth” – I absolutely agree. I’ve found this (the truth) can be uncomfortable but at least then I know what to deal with/resolve.

  10. Karen Friday

    Lisa, such great wisdom and insight. “Context” is so key in our thought patterns directly linked to our feelings and emotions. The first quote by Ellen resonated deeply. Context is learned by our experiences and sometimes what other people have said to our hearts or the false beliefs we hold in our hearts.

  11. Jean Wise

    Interesting post and book, I have had quite a journey with my emotions, In fact for awhile my motto was feeling are foolers. Now I accept them as part of me, but name them and don;t give them power. Yes my mindset makes the difference, Just imagine what we will learn about our emotions in another few years!! LOL

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  13. Tea With Jennifer

    Our thoughts definitely rule our emotions Lisa!
    Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a therapy that utilizes this human trait to bring positive ways of modifying thought patterns, through looking at life situations from differing perceptions.
    I like how you have pointed out that at times our contextualization of a subject can be rather skewed by various factors.
    Bless you,

  14. Maryleigh

    Looking back at how I grew up, I can see how I had to unlearn different ways of viewing and responding to so many things in order to change my emotions – and the need to not obsessively think about things – that changes the emotional landscape, too – not parking on the worries and fears for too long. Thanks for this topic – it’s one I would like to see developed more!

  15. Dr. C

    This is a very interesting piece of truth. Within the neurocircuitry of the brain, our emotions are formed before our thoughts, but the cycle of the central nervous system is not linear. Our initial emotions may form our initial thoughts, but the filtration system can flow backward and/or forward. Our emotions are the method the brain uses to communicate with us about our surroundings and environment with the ultimate purpose of self-preservation- the primary function of the brain. The challenge with this is that our brain isn’t always able to differentiate between reality and perceived reality and uses a point of comparison for all sensory input- do I know this, have I seen this before, have I had an emotional experience with this in the past and was it positive or negative, so on. Fascinating how God designed that feature! The brain often cannot tell the difference between recalling a memory and a live occurrence- which is why trauma is so detrimental!

    One tool we can use to help us in achieving what you’ve touched on here is the practice of interrupting our thought patterns- taking ourselves off auto-pilot. It’s easy to start thinking of something unintentionally and before long we’re on a mental journey to somewhere dark and depressing without realizing it. This happens because the roadmaps in our mind are just like the roads we drive on- the more frequently used, the easier to navigate. The more we think certain things, the more the brain remembers those thought pathways without having to actively think through the navigation. When we interrupt our thought patterns we’re telling the brain “Hey! We’re not going to that destination, turn around!” One method I use frequently is the 5 second rule- when I catch my thoughts drifting to places I’m not interested in journeying to I count down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and say NO we are not going down that path again. I then replace that thought with the thought of the way I’d like to respond, or the life I want to see, or the way I’d like a situation to playout or end. It’s not always a matter of those positive thoughts coming to pass, but in retraining the mind that it is not autonomous and must be brought to order.

    Thank you for sharing!

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