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Unwanted thoughts can make you feel anxious or depressed. They may keep you from enjoying your life.
A technique called thought-stopping can help you stop unwanted thoughts.
- What you think can affect how you feel. Thought-stopping helps you change how you think so that you feel better.
- Changing your thinking will take some time. You need to practice thought-stopping every day. After a while, you'll be able to stop unwanted thoughts right away.
- Some people may need more help to stop unwanted thoughts. Talk to your doctor or a therapist if you want more help to stop thoughts that bother you.
How can you stop thoughts?
To stop unwanted thoughts, you focus on the thought and then learn to say "Stop" to end the thought. At first, you will shout "Stop!" out loud. Then you will learn to say it in your mind so that you can use this technique anywhere. Here's how to get started:
List your most stressful thoughts. These are the thoughts that distract you from your daily activities and make you worry more. You wish you could stop having these thoughts, but they keep occurring. Write down your upsetting thoughts in order of the most stressful to the least stressful. Start practicing thought-stopping with the thought that is the least stressful. Here's an example of a list, starting with the most stressful:
- I'm always worried that something bad will happen to my child, even if she just gets a cold.
- I just know that one of us is going to get laid off from work.
- I'm so nervous about making a presentation at work that it's all I can think about.
- Imagine the thought. Sit or lie down in a private place (so you can say "Stop!" out loud and not feel self-conscious). Close your eyes. Imagine a situation in which you might have this stressful thought. Then allow yourself to focus on the thought.
Stop the thought. Startling yourself is a good way to interrupt the thought. Try one of these two techniques:
- Set a timer, watch, or other alarm for 3 minutes. Then focus on your unwanted thought. When the timer or alarm goes off, shout "Stop!" If you want, stand up when you say "Stop." Some people snap their fingers or clap their hands. These actions and saying "Stop" are cues to stop thinking. Empty your mind, and try to keep it empty for about 30 seconds. If the upsetting thought comes back during that time, shout "Stop!" again.
- Instead of using a timer, you can tape-record yourself shouting "Stop!" at intervals of 3 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute. Do the thought-stopping exercise. Focus on the thought, and then stop thinking about the unwanted thought—or anything else—when you hear your recorded voice say "Stop." Hearing your own voice telling you to stop helps strengthen your commitment to getting rid of the unwanted thought.
- Practice steps 1 through 3 until the thought goes away on command. Then try the process again. This time, interrupt the thought by saying the word "Stop!" in a normal voice.
- After your normal voice is able to stop the thought, try whispering "Stop." Over time, you can just imagine hearing "Stop" inside your mind. At this point, you can stop the thought whenever and wherever it occurs.
- Pick another thought that bothers you more than the last one, and continue thought-stopping.
Other ways to stop thoughts
You can change how you do thought-stopping:
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Create a picture in your mind of a big, bright-red stop sign. The letters on the sign are big and white: STOP. Picture the cars stopping at the sign, waiting patiently until it is their turn to go. Wait for your turn, then take a deep breath and proceed across the road. Are you still thinking that unwanted thought? It will take practice, but with time your brain will do this on its own, which will help you stop unwanted thoughts.
- Make yourself aware that you are having an unwanted thought by saying to yourself, "I'm having the thought that I might lose my job." Or "I'm thinking that I might lose my job." This reminds you that these are thoughts, not something that will happen.
- After you stop an unwanted thought, add a more pleasant thought or image that makes you feel more calm. This thought or image is not related to the unwanted thought. For example, you can think of playing with your children or going out on the town with friends. Or you might see yourself lying on a beach.
This new image or idea is not the same thing as replacing a negative thought with a helpful thought that is related to it. For more information on that method, see the topic Stop Negative Thoughts: Choosing a Healthier Way of Thinking.
An example of thought-stopping
Here's an example of how thought-stopping might work:
You're worried about a presentation you are giving at work later in the day. You're prepared. You know you're ready. But you can't stop worrying about it. You imagine making a mistake.
When you start to think of yourself stumbling over words, you say "Stop" quietly in your mind. You get up and move around, or you snap your rubber band as you say "Stop." Then you think of something pleasant to take your mind off the thought—such as a trip you are planning to take or a movie you saw recently that made you laugh.
Other Works Consulted
- Hart SL, Hart TA (2010). The future of cognitive behavioral interventions within behavioral medicine. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 24(4): 344–353.
- Layous K et al. (2011). Delivering happiness: Translating positive psychology intervention research for treating major and minor depressive disorders. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 17(8): 675–683.
- Lightsey OR, et al. (2012). Can positive thinking reduce negative affect? A test of potential mediating mechanisms. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 26(1): 71–88.
- McKay M, et al. (2011). Changing patterns of limited thinking. In Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life, 4th ed., pp. 27–45. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
- McKay M, et al. (2011). Coping with panic. In Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life, 4th ed., pp. 85–104. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
- McKay M, et al. (2011). Uncovering automatic thoughts. In Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life, 4th ed., pp. 15–25. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
- Newman CF, Beck AT (2009). Cognitive therapy. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol 2., pp. 2857–2873. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Current as of: May 28, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Catherine D. Serio PhD - Behavioral Health
Brian D. O'Brien MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Sue Barton PhD, PsyD - Behavioral Health
Christine R. Maldonado PhD - Behavioral Health
Current as of: May 28, 2019