How to Use Thought Stopping to Control Unwanted Thoughts

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Thought stopping is a strategy that involves blocking and replacing unwanted, distressing thoughts. The technique is sometimes used in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) as a way to halt or disrupt negative thoughts. Then, a more adaptive or helpful thought can then be substituted for the unhelpful one.

Thought stopping has a long history of use in CBT. However, some research suggests that when not done correctly, it is ineffective and can often contribute to worsening anxiety or obsessive thinking.

This article explores how thought stopping works, why it is sometimes ineffective, and when it can be useful. It also covers some of the different thought stopping techniques that people might use, and what strategies might be better to try instead.

How Thought Stopping Works

The focus on thought stopping is to disrupt, dismiss, and replace the unwanted thought. Some of the different strategies that you might use to do this include:

  • Saying "Stop!" inside your mind
  • Holding a visualization in your mind whenever you have the thought
  • Clapping your hands or snapping your finger whenever the thought enters your mind
  • Making a checkmark on a piece of paper every time you have the thought

The idea behind this approach is that these actions help you notice how often you are having the thought and help distract you from it. Another purpose is to help you notice some of the triggers that might be present when you do have those unwanted or intrusive thoughts.

In the past, people were sometimes told to put a rubber band around their wrist and snap it every time they had an unwanted thought. This strategy is no longer recommended since it is both punishing and ineffective.

It is also important to note that simply trying to suppress the thought is not the goal and can cause unwanted thoughts to rebound and worsen.

Research has also found that if you stop the thought without replacing it with a more positive one, negative thoughts tend to increase. Thought stopping is more about noticing these thoughts and then gently redirecting your mind to a more helpful, positive one.

When Is Thought Stopping Used

Thought stopping has often utilized as a way to treat many different problems, including:

  • Agoraphobia
  • Anxiety
  • Catastrophic thinking
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Obsessive-compulsive behavior
  • Rumination disorder
  • Social anxiety

One way that thought stopping might be helpful is if you are in a situation where you cannot address an unwanted thought. If you need to avoid thinking about something during a critical moment, temporarily using thought stopping can allow you to redirect your mind until you are in a time and place where you can deal with it effectively.

Some research also suggests that thought stopping can be 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.

Is Thought Stopping Effective?

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.

Some experts suggest that thought stopping can be harmful when used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It can increase obsessive thoughts and become a difficult to overcome ritual.

Thought Stopping Techniques

While not all therapists recommend the use of thought stopping, learning to become more aware of your negative thoughts can be helpful. When used in this way, thought stopping can be a tool that helps you identify problematic thoughts and learn ways to replace those thoughts. Some thought stopping techniques that can be useful include:

  1. Stop the thought: Tell yourself "stop" or try visualizing a stop sign in your mind. You might also envision yourself capturing the thought inside of a net where you can contain it in order to work through it later.
  2. Notice the thought: Don't try to suppress the thought. Acknowledge it exists without dwelling on it.
  3. Replace the thought: Now that you have evidence that the thought is not a reflection of reality replace it with something more helpful. This might be a self-affirmation or mantra that helps keep you feeling optimistic and focused.

When you have more time to focus on the thought, work on actively interrogating and disputing it. What other alternatives are there? Is the thought realistic? What might disprove it? Are cognitive distortions such as all-or-nothing thinking or black-and-white thinking affecting how you view a situation?

Other techniques that might be helpful when you are trying to stop a thought include:

  • Set a timer: Give yourself a set amount of time (just a minute or two) to have the thought. Once the alarm goes off, tell yourself, "Stop!" and redirect your mind to something else.
  • Use relaxation techniques: If you find yourself having a negative thought, use a relaxation technique such as progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing to refocus your attention elsewhere.
  • Meditate: Halt the negative thought by trying a quick meditation to shift your focus to more positive thoughts.

Recap

Though stopping techniques can help you become more aware of negative thoughts, disrupt that unhelpful thought pattern, and redirect your mind to a more helpful thought.

Alternatives to Thought Stopping

Thought stopping can be a helpful cognitive skill, but only when it is used appropriately. Having a positive replacement thought prepared is essential. However, it is also important to recognize that this is not the only strategy that can help with negative thinking. Alternatives that can also be helpful include:

Distraction

Identify activities that can help take your mind off of whatever is causing negative thinking. This could include things like reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, going for a walk, or anything else that helps you relax and takes your focus away from the negative thought.

Problem-Solving

Oftentimes, negative thinking results from feeling like you can't do anything to change a situation. If this is the case, problem-solving can be a helpful alternative to thought stopping. Trying to come up with realistic solutions to the problem at hand can help lessen the power of the negative thought and give you a sense of control.

Acceptance

In some cases, thought stopping may not be possible or effective because the thought is based on reality. In these situations, it can be helpful to practice acceptance instead. This means accepting the thought or situation for what it is without trying to change it or make it go away.

Acceptance doesn't mean that you like the thought or agree with it, but rather that you acknowledge its existence and let it go.

Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is a technique that can help you change the way you think about a situation. This involves identifying and challenging the negative beliefs and thoughts that are causing you to feel bad. Once you identify these thoughts, you can start to question them and look at things from a different, more positive perspective.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a state of being present in the moment and accepting things as they are, without judgment. This can be helpful in reducing negative thinking because it allows you to step back from your thoughts and observe them without getting caught up in them. You can see them for what they are—just thoughts—and not let them have so much power over you.

Journaling

Writing down your thoughts can help you to get them out of your head and see them in a different light. It can also be helpful to write down what you're grateful for each day, as this can help shift your focus to the positive things in your life.

A Word From Verywell

Thought stopping can be a helpful cognitive skill at times, as long as it is used appropriately. It should not be used to simply block or suppress thoughts without replacing or dealing with them.

There are also many alternatives to thought stopping that can be helpful in reducing negative thinking. Experiment with different techniques and find the ones that work best for you.

Remember, negative thoughts are a normal part of life—everyone has them from time to time. The goal is not to get rid of them completely, but rather to find ways to deal with them in a healthy way.

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3 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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