18 Effective Thought-Stopping Techniques (& 10 PDFs)

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Proactive Management of Repetitive Thoughts

Negative thoughts can become the norm and habitual without taking action, occurring throughout the day and at specific times and events.

“Thought stopping is premised on recognizing the occurrence of negative or unhelpful thoughts, and then breaking the cycle of negative thinking” (Sburlati, 2014, p. 226).

This commonly applied proactive CBT-based approach to managing and breaking the cycle of repetitive negative thoughts often includes the following steps (Sburlati, 2014):

  1. Awareness
    Catch the negative thought early by practicing improved awareness.
  2. Interruption
    Interrupt the thought by saying “stop.” Saying it out loud adds an auditory cue that signifies it is time to halt the thought process.
  3. Physical cue
    Reinforce the verbal interruption by adding a physical action (perhaps banging a hand on the table) or gripping an object (such as the back of the chair). A tactile stimulus helps anchor the mind in the present.
  4. Cognitive replacement
    Having interrupted the thought, try replacing it with a more positive and balanced one. Say it out loud if possible.

While saying “stop,” adding a mildly aversive experience, such as slapping an elastic band against the wrist, can be helpful.

Stopping unwanted repetitive thoughts involves more than simply a mental interruption; it requires a cognitive intervention that involves deliberate, active engagement and practice to encourage it to become habitual. In doing so, it is possible to halt the spiral of repeating negative and unproductive thoughts that, if left unchecked, can become embedded into our daily routines (Sburlati, 2014).

4 Techniques to Help Clients With Thought Blocking

Thought blocking techniqueWe don’t have to live with continually recurring negative thoughts; there are several thought-stopping techniques that combine to help us stop or block them (Clark, 2020).

1. Identify negative thoughts

Such thoughts are typically repetitive and focus on dark possibilities and their immediate negative consequences. They are intrusive and difficult to shift.

Ask the client to:

  • Write down a list of three negative life experiences you often think about.
  • Capture the negative thoughts associated with each one.

For example, a recent breakup with a significant other led to feelings like, “It’s all my fault. I’m unlovable. I’ll end up alone.”

2. Know the triggers

Typically, recurring negative thoughts don’t just appear; they are triggered. Knowing when this happens allows the client to avoid the situation or prepare themselves for the thought that follows.

Encourage the client to:

  • Think back to times when you experienced strong negative thoughts.
  • Capture any triggers, including comments, memories, situations, and related thoughts and beliefs.

For example, “At a recent family gathering, someone asked how my career was going and compared me to other family members. I’m not as successful as my cousins. I’m sure my family is disappointed in me.”

  • Write down any patterns you notice. When do you react more strongly? What are you most sensitive about? Are there other related intrusive, unwanted thoughts?

Improving our degree of mental control helps us direct our attention and concentration to the task we are performing rather than becoming distracted and upset by unwanted, often negative, thoughts (Clark, 2020).

3. Direct attention and maintain focus

Clinical psychologist, researcher, and therapist David Clark (2020) suggests using thought retention and thought dismissal.

Thought retention:

Close your eyes and keep your mind focused as hard as possible on a white bear.

As other thoughts enter your mind, mark them as a tally on a blank sheet of paper before gently returning your attention to the bear.

After two minutes, stop and check your tally.

Thought dismissal:

Again, close your eyes, but this time, try as much as you can to keep thoughts of a white bear out of your mind.

If the thought of a white bear enters your mind, mark it as a tally on a blank sheet of paper before gently returning your attention to other thoughts.

After two minutes, stop and check your tally.

Ask the client to compare the two experiences. They most likely found it much more challenging to block the bear. However, with practice, they will become better at focusing on the positives, and this will help them block or ignore intrusive thoughts, particularly negative ones (Clark, 2020).

4. Recognize effective versus ineffective strategies for thought blocking

It is vital to identify and remember to use the most effective mental controls for blocking unwanted thoughts.

Ask the client:

Review the list of strategies below that people often see as ineffective at stopping thoughts:

  • Trying to reason with yourself
  • Criticizing yourself for thinking this way
  • Telling yourself to stop thinking this way
  • Trying to reassure yourself that everything will be fine
  • Performing a compulsive ritual

Add some of your own and consider which ones you disagree with.

Here’s another list, this time including strategies individuals often find to be effective at thought blocking:

  • Replacing a negative thought with a positive one
  • Engaging in an activity to distract yourself
  • Accepting the thought; letting it float through your mind without engaging in it
  • Trying to view the negative thought in a more positive, helpful manner
  • Trying to relax, meditate, or breathe slowly

Add ones of your own.

Encourage the client to review both lists to see which ones they agree with (or would challenge) and make a note of ones that would be personally helpful to them and when they could use them.

5 Thought-Stopping Techniques for Anxiety and Other Modalities

We have plenty of thought-stopping tools based on techniques for helping clients with anxious, fearful, and panicked thoughts that surface in their lives.

While some of them involve the “mental process of consciously attempting to avoid thinking about a particular thought” (Shackelford & Zeigler-Hill, 2020, p. 5499), others work by stopping the thought from overwhelming the individual (Forsyth & Eifert, 2016).

  • STOP the Panic
    The STOP acronym (slower breath, thoughts and feelings, open up, and personal values) helps clients manage and take control of their emotions while finding calm.
  • Reverse the Rabbit Hole
    The client captures potential worries and comes up with plausible positive outcomes to prevent a downward spiral of anxiety and other fearful thoughts.
  • Event Visualization
    Picturing an event before it happens can prevent difficult thoughts from arising and avoid the panic of not feeling in control.
  • Tackling Anxious Thoughts
    Regularly practicing noticing anxious and irrational thoughts helps prevent anxiety from taking hold.
  • Understanding Your Anxiety and Triggers
    Identify the triggers that lead to feelings of anxiety to be ready with an appropriate stopping strategy.

Helpful Worksheets and Activities

Thought blocking worksheMental control strategies can be challenging to master, yet with practice, they can be powerful tools for stopping thoughts from taking over how we think and feel (Sburlati, 2014).

  • Dysfunctional Thought Record
    Individuals who struggle with negative thoughts may benefit from figuring out when and why they pop up.
  • Negative Thoughts Checklist
    Taking time to identify negative repetitive thoughts can help us determine how they influence our mood.
  • Control–Influence–Accept Model
    When experiencing feelings and thoughts associated with hopelessness and being overwhelmed, it can be helpful to reflect on what can be controlled.
  • Stop Right Now
    When faced with an impulse to react, clients are encouraged to ask themselves, “What am I feeling at this moment?” and “What am I telling myself?”
  • STOP – Distress Tolerance
    Clients can develop the skills to handle strong emotions and tolerate painful events using another STOP acronym (stop, don’t just react; take a step back; observe; and proceed mindfully).

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

We have many resources available for therapists to prevent difficult, unwanted, or unhealthy thoughts from taking over.

Along with the free resources we have already shared, more extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©.

They are described briefly below:

  • The Most Helpful Thoughts
    Excessive unhelpful thinking can cause us to misinterpret everyday situations and behave in ways that exacerbate existing problems.
    • Step one – Consider an unhelpful thought, when it happened, what thoughts were present, and how it made you feel.
    • Step two – Analyze the unhelpful thought. Why was this line of thinking not helpful in this situation?
    • Step three – Think about a new, more constructive thought and how it could change your emotional response to the situation.
    • Step four – Reflect on the new, more helpful thought and how it alters your perception of the situation.
  • Don’t Think About Your Thoughts
    It can be valuable for clients to learn the challenges surrounding suppressing negative thoughts and the potential for rebound effects.
    • Step one – Choose a negative thought that often bothers you.
    • Step two – Spend a few minutes (three to five minutes) trying not to think about it.
    • Step three – Note how often the thought came to mind while trying to avoid it.
    • Step four – Spend another few minutes (three to five minutes) allowing your mind to wander freely without trying to control your thoughts.
    • Step five – Observe whether the negative thought occurred less or more often when you allowed your mind to think freely compared to when you tried to suppress it.

Discussion: Reflect on the experience. Was it easier or harder to avoid the negative thought when you were actively trying to suppress it? Did the thought become less intense or more consuming during suppression?

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others through CBT, check out this collection of 17 validated positive CBT tools for practitioners. Use them to help others overcome unhelpful thoughts and feelings and develop more positive behaviors.

A Take-Home Message

Intrusive thoughts are inevitable. While some are benign, others are upsetting, causing distress or wrecking confidence (Shackelford & Zeigler-Hill, 2020).

Such thoughts can be damaging and are particularly common in individuals with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Traditional thought-stopping techniques suppress or block such unwanted mental interruptions, while more recent approaches offer ways to manage them and prevent them from taking over our thinking (Sburlati, 2014; Shackelford & Zeigler-Hill, 2020).

Originally based on CBT techniques, thought stopping also involves mindfulness and acceptance approaches when clients become stuck, unable to prevent them or move forward. They stop the thought by showing self-kindness and acceptance rather than putting up barriers.

Whatever the approach, thought stopping involves awareness. To be ready to stop the thought, the individual must learn the triggers and situations when such negative thinking occurs.

Why not try the thought-stopping techniques, tools, and exercises shared in the article with clients and see how they help avoid, arrest, or sidestep unwanted and damaging thoughts?

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. For more information, don’t forget to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free.

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