Thought Stopping to Avoid Panic and Anxiety

A woman looking out the window and worrying.

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Thought stopping is a technique that some people use to help with the intrusive negative thoughts and worry that often accompany panic attacks. The basis of this technique is to stop unwanted negative thoughts and replace them with neutral or positive thoughts.

When anxiety or panic attacks occur, the physical symptoms are often frightening and confusing. This condition leads to intrusive, repetitive thoughts that are focused on worry and doubt.

These thoughts may cause you to experience a sense of helplessness, anxiousness, or a lack of confidence. Your behaviors can then start to mirror your feelings. For instance, you may avoid trying new things or avoid participating in activities you once enjoyed.

Thought Stopping Techniques

While thought stopping may be used in therapy, you don't need a trained clinician to practice this cognitive technique. The first step in thought stopping is to identify an unwanted worry or thought.

The next step is to stop the negative thought. Traditionally, this is done by saying "Stop!" either aloud or in your head every time you have the negative thought. Other ways to stop negative thoughts in their tracks include:

  • Clapping your hands or snapping your fingers
  • Getting up and moving
  • Imagining a big, red stop sign
  • Snapping an elastic band on your wrist

The final step in this process is to replace your negative thought with a positive and rational one. For example, you might try replacing those negative thoughts with positive self-talk such as telling yourself that you can deal with it.

Principles Behind Thought Stopping

The theory of why thought stopping works is pretty straightforward: Interrupting bothersome and unnecessary thoughts with a “stop” command or something more positive serves as a helpful reminder and a distraction.

Thoughts of fear and worry tend to ruminate or repeat in your mind if you suffer from panic disorder. Left unchecked, they become automatic and occur frequently.

If you’re using thought stopping, you become aware of unhealthy thought chains and divert your attention away from damaging, repetitive thought habits.

In addition, using the thought stopping technique may give you a sense of control. When followed with positive and reassuring statements, you are breaking the negative thought habit and reinforcing a sense of reassurance. If unhealthy thought patterns have influenced how you feel and how you behave, so will healthy and beneficial thoughts—but in a much better way, of course.

Why It May Not Work for You

Thought stopping can be an effective strategy to help some people overcome negative thinking and gain a new perspective on life. However, this technique may not be suited for everyone and can even backfire in some circumstances. For example, some people find that trying to push anxious thoughts down only makes them build stronger until they all explode or come rushing out at once.

In fact, most psychologists don't recommend thought stopping. It is believed the thought rebounding that can occur is more damaging than just dealing with the negative thoughts in a direct way.

It can create a feeling of responsibility or blame for a person having negative thoughts without actually figuring out where the thought came from in the first place. And for those with serious mental illnesses, it's not effective to tell them to simply stop thinking bad thoughts.

Alternatives to Thought Stopping

Some people might find thought stopping useful. However, there are also other strategies that may be more effective for dealing with intrusive thoughts and anxious feelings.

Acceptance

Thought stopping can often work as a form of avoidance. Rather than confronting and coping with the thought, it simply avoids it. So instead of simply halting or pushing aside unpleasant, anxious, or intrusive thoughts, practicing acceptance can allow you to move past it without letting it contribute to your anxiety. 

You can practice acceptance by avoiding ruminating on the thought. Instead, simply let it pass through you without judgment and remind yourself that such thoughts can only hurt you if you let them.

Relaxation Techniques

When you feeling yourself experiencing anxious thoughts, practicing relaxation strategies can help you keep calm and move past the intrusive worries. Examples of relaxation techniques you might try include visualization, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation. The more you practice, the better able you'll be able to calm yourself quickly whenever you feel overcome with anxiety.

When to Seek Help

If you find that your negative thinking and anxiety have become overwhelming, it may be time to consult with a mental health provider. Anxiety may become worse over time, so tackling these feelings as soon as possible can be helpful.

A therapist can help you to work through these issues and develop cognitive behavioral strategies to assist in dealing with your thoughts. Your therapist can also make referrals when needed, giving you access to additional treatment options. Your doctor or therapist may recommend medications along with psychotherapy.

A Word From Verywell

It is also important to remember that while many experts believe that your thoughts influence how you feel and how you behave, this does not mean that your thoughts are solely behind your troubling symptoms. There are often biological, environmental, and other causes contributing to your mental health condition, which can best be sorted out with a healthcare professional.

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Article Sources
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