“We can go three weeks without food, three days without water, three minutes without oxygen – but we can’t even go for three seconds without thinking.”
Dr Caroline Leaf
A better understanding of my cognitive functions and prioritising mind-management has changed my life. This may sound like an exaggeration, but it really isn’t.
One of the most exciting concepts I have found out about during my research is neuroplasticity. Our brain changes continuously throughout life, with or without “brain-training” in response to our actions and experiences.
I learnt that our physical brain is shaped by our thoughts. The way we think also affects the whole body’s health through a natural stress and hormone response. I am not a neuroscientist, and my knowledge is quite limited on this topic, but I know enough to understand how vital intentional mind-management is.
In the Bible, we find a similar concept that we call the renewal of the mind.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.Romans 12:2
Paul wasn’t a neuroscientist either, but by God’s wisdom, he understood that people’s response to their environment and experiences shape their lives. He offers us an alternative and, I believe, the preferable option to being renewed in our thinking by responding to God.
The renewal of the mind is a life-long process. It requires our time, attention, and regular practice to learn to be transformed this way and shift from being shaped by experiences and life circumstances to be shaped by God.
In simple terms, it is possible to invite God into our natural process of neuroplasticity and see how he brings healing and restoration to our body, soul and spirit. One way this can happen is through prayer journaling. Let me show you how.
Step 2. Identify triggers behind your emotional responses. Look for long-term patterns.
Last time I wrote about how you can start your prayer journaling session by making a list of everything on your mind, and you are concerned about at that moment. Remember that it’s not a to-do list or a shopping list. Focus on different relationships, plans, dreams, questions and a variety of feelings or emotional response in you triggered by your life circumstances. The next step then is to think about what might have caused you to be concerned or to feel a certain way. Where did everything start? Try to go as deep as you can but stay realistic in your expectations. Watch out for reoccurring triggers, an toxic thinking patterns as they may affect you more than realise. Talk to God about it or write a prayer. Ask him to highlight issues and speak to you through his Word.
To give you an example, I am working through a complicated and deeply rooted issue that has been causing me quite a lot of fear and anxiety lately. Ever since I started working as an assistant minister, I have been struggling with feelings of insecurities. As a result of some of my past experiences and hurt, I find it challenging to see myself in a leadership position. I feel the pressure of imagined or real expectations. I am troubled by the tension between the certainty of God’s call on my life and my insecurities. I often experience questions and doubts rising in my heart, like “Who am I to stand in front of people?” “Why would anyone listen to me anyway?” “I am too young to do this” “It’s wrong for a woman to be in leadership” “I am just a foreigner; why would anybody want to know what I have to say?”
(I hope you appreciate my honesty and vulnerability. I feel that it is essential to give you some real-life example to understand better what I am talking about, and hopefully, it will inspire you to try it for yourself.)
After acknowledging and embracing the reality of how I feel and things I am concerned about, I move on to the next step, and I start to identify possible triggers that have caused me to feel this way.
When a conversation or an experience triggers an intense (immediate or long term) emotional response in you, a couple of things can happen.
1. As soon as emotions are involved, objectivity gets compromised. In a tense situation, you may experience brain fog or that your heart rate goes up. Your automatic coping mechanism kicks in and makes you want to run away and hide, or just the opposite, you want to off-load your frustration through confrontation. What you really need at that moment is distance and perspective, and writing can help you with that. Prayer journaling is a healthy and safe way to off-load, de-stress, gather yourself and calm down. The other way to achieve a similar result is to think about what would you say to a friend in a similar situation. This shift in perspective also creates the same desired distance, and it is a helpful exercise, especially when you don’t have the time or the opportunity to sit down and write.
2. When you experience long term pressure and have unresolved issues in your life, you might feel drained of energy, fatigued, anxious or depressed. In this case, it’s crucial to remember that there is nothing wrong with you; you have nothing to be ashamed of. These feelings are a normal and natural response to stress, indicating that something is happening in your body that requires your attention. Awareness and understanding of your emotional responses can empower you to deal with the situation efficiently without falling apart. Prayer journaling is my favourite way to de-stress. Not only because of all the scientifically proven health benefits of writing but also because in a conversation with God, I am able to anchor my spiralling thoughts to his truth and promises. God is my vantage point, my solid rock and firm foundation; in his presence, I can face any challenge with confidence. Seeing my life from God’s perspective also gives me a framework to think about my circumstances and re-evaluate my natural responses.
Suffering without Jesus is just suffering. Suffering in Jesus teaches us to stand firm in hope and find meaning and purpose even in the most adverse circumstances.More than beloved
Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Romans 5:3-5
3. Another widely recognised benefit of prayer journaling is that you can go back and read your journal entries months or even years later. After doing the hard work of identifying the source of your concerns and triggers of anxiety, I would like to encourage you to write everything down as detailed as you can. Being able to read your journal from a distance of some time will help you to…
- … appreciate your journey more when you see how far you have come.
- … identify deeply rooted thought patterns or reoccurring issues in your life that would be hard or even impossible to notice otherwise.
- … see how God is with you in every and any circumstances. Journaling your smallest and most courageous prayers and the answers you receive will help you get to know yourself better and nourish your relationship with God.
Reading my journal entries from 5 or 8 years ago, I see how my whole sense of identity has changed over time. Now, I have a better understanding of my story and the process of becoming the person I was created to be. And that’s what I think prayer journaling is all about.
 Vida, D. (2014) Neuroplasticity, Periodicum biologorum, Vol. 116 No. 2, 2014., Accessible at https://hrcak.srce.hr/index.php?show=clanak&id_clanak_jezik=186735
 Costandi, M. (2016) Neuroplasticity, The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series
 Kross, E. (2021) Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters, and How to Harness it, Vermilion