Stop Negative Thoughts: Getting Started

Introduction

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.
 

Thought-stopping is a way to get rid of unwanted thoughts. You may dwell or obsess on thoughts that make you worry, feel sad, or feel bad about yourself. Research shows that thought-stopping works. It can change the way you think. In thought-stopping, you focus on the unwanted thought and then use a technique to stop it.

When you practice thought-stopping, the unwanted thought occurs less often. Over time, the thought will be easier to ignore or may not occur at all. In some cases, the thoughts may be worries. For example, you may worry a lot about your health or the health of a family member. Or you may think over and over about a bad grade in school or a comment by a supervisor at work. Thought-stopping can help you deal with these thoughts.

You can work on thought-stopping on your own or with a counselor or therapist.

Test Your Knowledge

Thought-stopping can help you to not worry so much.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Thought-stopping can help you to not worry so much. You learn how to stop a thought that bothers you and then think about something else.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Thought-stopping can help you to not worry so much. You learn how to stop a thought that bothers you and then think about something else.

  •  

You need to see a counselor or a therapist to practice thought-stopping.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    You don't need to see a counselor or a therapist to practice thought-stopping. You can try it on your own or as part of therapy.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    You don't need to see a counselor or therapist to practice thought-stopping. You can try it on your own or as part of therapy.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

Studies show that when you change what you think, you can change your mood. Thought-stopping is easy to learn, and it can help you feel better. Negative, unwanted thoughts can lead to anxiety or depression. They can keep you from sleeping well. And they can make it hard for you to work and enjoy your life.

Thought-stopping also can help if you already have anxiety or depression. It's one way to take an active role in your treatment. You can prevent some of the thoughts that make you anxious or depressed.

You can learn to do thought-stopping anywhere, so it can help you at work or at home. It's also easy to learn. But it does take some practice.

In some cases, you may need more help to stop thoughts that worry you or make you feel bad. Some thoughts or behaviors can't be handled by thought-stopping alone. Seek the help of your doctor or a licensed therapist or counselor if you can't stop unwanted thoughts on your own.

Test Your Knowledge

Thought-stopping is an easy way to change how you think.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    The technique to stop unwanted thoughts is easy to learn. But it will take practice to make it work.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    The technique to stop unwanted thoughts is easy to learn. But it will take practice to make it work.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

  • Put a rubber band around your wrist. Whenever you want to stop an unwanted thought, say "Stop" to yourself and snap the rubber band at the same time. After a while, you will be able to just snap the rubber band to stop an unwanted thought.
  • 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.

Test Your Knowledge

To stop unwanted thoughts, you need to concentrate on them.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    To stop unwanted thoughts, you DO have to concentrate on them. You practice focusing on the thought you want to stop, and then you use cues such as saying "Stop" and snapping a rubber band on your wrist to stop yourself from thinking about it.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    To stop unwanted thoughts, you DO have to concentrate on them. You practice focusing on the thought you want to stop, and then you use cues such as saying "Stop" and snapping a rubber band on your wrist to stop yourself from thinking about it.

  •  

At first, it's best to practice stopping the thought that bothers you the most.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    At first, it's best to practice stopping the thought that bothers you the LEAST. This will help you learn how to do thought-stopping. When you can stop the smaller worries, you will be more likely to stop the thoughts that bother you the most.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    At first, it's best to practice stopping the thought that bothers you the LEAST. This will help you learn how to do thought-stopping. When you can stop the smaller worries, you will be more likely to stop the thoughts that bother you the most.

  •  

Continue to Where?

 

Now that you have read this information, you are ready to practice stopping unwanted thoughts.

Thought-stopping can be used with other cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques. You can learn to notice negative thoughts and then replace them with helpful thoughts.

For more information, see:

Click here to view an Actionset.Anxiety: Stop Negative Thoughts.
Click here to view an Actionset.Depression: Stop Negative Thoughts.
Click here to view an Actionset.Weight Management: Stop Negative Thoughts.

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References

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.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Catherine D. Serio, PhD - Behavioral Health
Specialist Medical Reviewer Sue Barton, PhD, PsyD - Behavioral Health
Last Revised August 3, 2012

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