Thought Stopping to Avoid Panic and Anxiety

Man visualizes happy thoughts

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When 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. 

A technique called thought stopping can be used to interrupt persistent negative thoughts.

What Is Thought Stopping?

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

Thought Stopping Techniques

You don't need a trained clinician to practice thought stopping. 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.

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.

Most psychologists don't recommend thought stopping for patients, since it's 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.

If you find that your negative thinking and anxiety have become overwhelming, it may be time to consult with a mental health provider. 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.

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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