Thought Stopping and Controlling Obsessive Thoughts

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Thought stopping is common in cognitive-behavioral therapy. The clinician teaches the technique to the client, who can use it to stop racing thoughts or obsessive worrying. In this technique, when the obsessive or racing thoughts begin, the client says, clearly and distinctly, "Stop!" This then allows the client to substitute a new, healthier thought.

Many therapists encourage the client to, at first, yell out the "Stop!" This helps focus the attention on the word and away from the obsessive thought. Later, the client will be able to mentally yell the word to themselves without needing to say it aloud.

Does Thought Stopping Really Work?

While some therapists and group therapy programs promote thought stopping as an effective technique, the results of a 2010 review of research by a group of Yale psychologists disagree.

The review found an association between thought suppression strategies and greater depression and anxiety, not less.

The psychologists found an association between anxiety reduction and other strategies including, cognitive restructuring, acceptance, and problem-solving techniques.

Thought Stopping DIY

Do you have repetitive negative thoughts swirling around in your psyche you'd like to get rid of? You might be having irrational feelings of jealousy, or maybe you experience negative self-talk that undermines your self-confidence.

You don't need a trained clinician to apply thought-stopping strategies, although some people may require professional assistance. If you're helping your child, explain that the two of you are going to try something to help alleviate their negative thoughts. You can have a shot at doing it yourself by following these four steps:

  1. Say "Stop!" when you experience a recurring thought, either aloud or to yourself.
  2. Negate the bad thought in a positive way, by exchanging the negative thought for a positive one. Replace "I cannot..." or "I will not..." with "I can..." or "I will..."
  3. Take a deep breath, or learn a breathing relaxation technique, to help you relax instead of feeling anxiety, and say the peaceful thought out loud or in your mind repeatedly until the bad thought disappears.
  4. Complete these steps every time you notice the recurring thought.

Stress Inoculation Training

Stress inoculation training (SIT), along with cognitive behavior therapy, can be successful at preventing the development of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Thought stopping is one of a variety of coping skills taught during SIT. Other coping skills include:

Adjustment Disorders After Cancer

Most patients can adjust to their lives after the rigors of cancer treatment, but unfortunately, some don't and develop adjustment disorders, including agoraphobia, social phobia, social anxiety disorder, or specific phobia.

A patient with adjustment disorders experiences anxiety and other emotional problems that are more severe than expected and cause problems for them at home or work.

Thought stopping is one component of a treatment plan that can help improve the quality of life for patients with adjustment disorders after cancer treatment. Adjustment disorders before, during, and after cancer treatment can be complex mental issues, which require professional guidance for successful treatment.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Aldao A, Nolen-Hoeksema S, Schweizer S. Emotion-regulation strategies across psychopathology: a meta-analytic review. Clin Psychol Rev. 2010;30(2):217-237. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2009.11.004

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  4. National Cancer Institute. Adjustment to cancer: anxiety and distress (PDQ) - patient version. Updated July 9, 2019.