You may know Jennie Allen through her Bible teaching, writing or maybe even the IF: Gathering she started. But in her book Get Out of Your Head: Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts, Allen explores a whole new area: neuroscience. By combining research about how our brains work with biblical truths about our thought life, she was able to come up with a pretty radical message of how we can take control of our thought lives. She took the time to talk to RELEVANT about the book, why she got interested in neuroscience and some practical tips for better mental health.
So you were working on another book and then you decided to write this one instead. What happened?
I remember I was on the phone with my publisher and my agent, and we were just trying to figure out when to release it. They were like, “Jennie, I just don’t feel like you’re excited about this.” I wasn’t. I just felt like it was the next book I was supposed to do. I already had done a lot of work on it, and they said, “What we really feel like you get excited about is your thought life book.” I was also already working on that one
It was not easy to do. I mean, that meant that I wouldn’t get paid for an extra year or two. So there definitely was a cost in just waiting for everyone to wait when I’m sitting on go on a book that was two-thirds done. I’m so grateful. I’m grateful for people around me that care more about the work and helping people than they do about the money.
So what was it about this book that made it click?
My daughter was into neuroscience and has been since seventh grade. She just graduated. So years of Ted talks and podcasts and reading articles. I mean, she would print off articles and kept folders with them that she wanted me to read with her.
What I found so intriguing and interesting was everything I was reading in secular science articles was backing up scripture. I’m a Bible teacher, so that was interesting to me. I also was seeing women who were stuck in issues year, after year, after year. Even though their desire was to move past that issue, they couldn’t seem to do it. That was interesting to me, and as someone who wants our generation to live as free in Christ as possible, it seemed to be a barrier.
Scripture is pretty commanding about language. Like: quit thinking about that thing, or start thinking about this thing. I thought that was interesting. We seem to have more God-given power over our thoughts than we do over our emotions.
Then I went through a season of about eighteen months of pretty intense doubt, which I talk about in the book. It was in the middle of the night. It was 3:00 AM, and I was waking up every single night, asking myself questions and really started believing lies about God, about myself.
I can look back and see clearly it was spiritual warfare. However, I didn’t realize it at the time. So I just let it happen. I just sat there and thought all these toxic thoughts over and over again. After that season, there was a fire in me. What if this is the main place that we are in bondage and we are in strongholds, and we’re not even aware that we have power over these things?
I think that sent me on the search for tying the Bible and science together. What would it look like for us to really take our minds more seriously and our thoughts more seriously? It blew my mind. The science is fascinating.
Tell me about the science.
A few little facts that will be interesting to everybody. We have anywhere from 9,000 to 60,000 thoughts in a day. Of those thoughts, 85 percent of those thoughts, for most humans, are negative. And about 95 percent of our thoughts are repetitive from the day before.
So that means that we’re thinking the same negative thoughts over and over and over again. If we’re having tens of thousands of thoughts, we’re thinking a lot of negative thoughts repetitively over and over. We’re all stuck in this. I just wanted to grab everybody by the shoulders and say, “Hey, you don’t have to live this way.”
Why do we live this way? It sounds like a horrible way to live.
I think it’s coming from several places. We’ve got to come to terms with technology. That’s not a secret. That’s not something inventive or new. We’ve got to realize that our inputs are shaping our lives. Our quality of life is shaped by what we think about.
I want us to be really clear: I’m not saying that you can just snap your fingers, pray a prayer, and mental health issues go away. But you can change your thoughts. I am a believer in medicine, doctors and counselors playing their role in that healing process. Because some of us have thought the same toxic thoughts for ten years, and that’s going to take more than just, oh, I’m not going to think that way anymore.
I think it will help everybody, whether you struggle with mental illness or not, to know that you can shift the way you think. You can interrupt it. If I were to say, “You look so sad today. Don’t feel sad,” that’s not very helpful. But if you’re thinking something specific and you’re honest about that, and you do start to discipline your mind — I’m not going to feed that thought anymore; I’m not going to give that thought energy anymore — that is something that’s in your power and control to do. That’s scientific and that’s biblical.
It caused a lot of curiosity in me of maybe the root of this anxiety or the struggles that we’re seeing across the board right now with depression and fear and worry, maybe we could at least start to interrupt some of those spirals and really start to see a shift.
What kind of shift?
As much as our brains are shaped by negative thoughts, our brains are also shaped by positive thoughts. Those positive thoughts are just as powerful and more interrupting the negative ones. So when you really get in the practice of this, it really does start to change not just the way you think, but the way you feel and the way you live.
What does starting that process look like?
It’s not as simple as just thinking positive thoughts. The most helpful work I found was really more in the neuroscience world. What they encourage you to do, and what I encourage you to do in the book, is to start with a mind map. Just list out what it is you thought about today. You have to start by noticing your thoughts. So when you start to list all those out and you start to see what it is, you can start to see a theme of what it is that you’re so worried about.
There’s a lot of themes in there that you’re worried about. That you’re believing a lie, that you are feeling inadequate, whatever it is. So you start to see these one or two or three themes emerge, which is then it feels like you can get your hands around it and start to do the work. That work looks like believing the truth.
How do we ever go from believing a lie to believing the truth? We have to know what the truth is, and we have to know what’s a lie. So you have to start to identify: What is the lie I’ve been believing, what does God’s Word say and what is the truth that could set that life free? That work is regular and consistent. In the same way that our negative thoughts have been regular and consistent, we have to put those thoughts in regularly.
The other thing that I’ve seen work for me is just to be quick to reach out to a friend. Isolation is probably the greatest enemy to our minds. I walked through eighteen months season of doubt. When I look back at that season, that season then was spent alone in the dark with the devil. He just told me whatever he wanted, and I never told anybody. So the biggest start to my freedom was when I started saying: this is what I’ve been feeling, this is what I’ve been thinking about. Then I felt like people could speak into that and help me with it rather than me being so alone.