What Is Thought Blocking, And How Do You Treat It?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated March 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

You may have experienced a moment in your life where you forgot what you wanted to say to someone else. Perhaps you felt distracted, sidetracked, or lost your train of thought. In any case, the thought may return, and the conversation may continue. 

However, for some people, this phenomenon can be much more troublesome. Individuals with certain mental health conditions can experience a phenomenon called thought blocking. Unlike the momentary lapses that can be normal, individuals experiencing thought blocking occur when individuals are not able to recall what they were thinking.

This condition is not common and can be distressing to those affected by it. If you or a loved one are currently experiencing episodes of thought blocking, there are a few ways to treat or manage symptoms.

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Are you concerned with recent lapses in thought or memory?

What causes thought blocking?

Thought blocking is an abrupt interruption in an otherwise regular stream of thought. It can be common in those experiencing severe mental health conditions. It can also occur when someone recalls a traumatic memory or in an otherwise typical conversation.

When thought blocking occurs, the individual may stop talking mid-sentence and forget what they are saying. They may be unable to recover what they were talking about no matter how much prompting they receive or how many probing questions are asked. Thought blocking is seen most often in people diagnosed with schizophrenia, which is a psychotic disorder. Thought blocking is also linked to other psychotic disorders and severe mood and anxiety disorders.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a mental illness that can cause hallucinations and delusions. It affects about 0.32% of the global population. Symptoms and their effects can vary significantly between individuals, so treatment is specific to each person. Schizophrenia is often diagnosed in early adulthood and is identified through symptoms such as:

  • Delusions: Beliefs that are persistently held despite evidence to the contrary
  • Hallucinations: Senses related to non-existent stimuli. Auditory hallucinations are the most common type of hallucination.
  • Disorganized Thinking: Reflected in disorganized speech. Communication may be difficult or impossible to understand.
  • Disorganized Motor Behavior: May range from agitation to strange postures and movements
  • Negative Symptoms: Refers to aspects of everyday functioning that are lacking. Negative symptoms may include a lack of emotion, a lack of interest in socializing, or difficulty feeling pleasure.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a complex mood disorder characterized by intense alternating periods of high energy and depressive symptoms. Many factors contribute to bipolar disorder, such as genetic influences and differences in brain structure. Medical professionals can often identify bipolar disorder through dynamic symptoms of “highs” and “lows,” including:

Highs

  • Periods of increased energy and activity
  • Rapid thinking
  • Participation in risky behaviors (such as extreme spending or potentially harmful sexual activity)
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Anger and irritability

Lows

  • Sleeping too much
  • Excessive worry
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Depressed mood
  • Suicidal thoughts

Psychosis

Psychosis is not a mental illness but rather a symptom of an underlying condition. Psychosis may be caused by changes in sleep patterns, injury to the brain, mental illness, substance use, or use of and withdrawal from certain prescription medications. Psychosis is characterized by symptoms that may include the following: 

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depressed mood
  • Too much or too little sleep
  • Anxiety
  • Suspiciousness
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Disorganized speech
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Severe anxiety

Some anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder or social anxiety disorder, may be so severe that they impact an individual’s ability to communicate effectively. Those who develop severe social anxiety may experience extreme discomfort at the thought of talking to or interacting with others. They may also choose to avoid social situations whenever possible. While avoidance of social situations or difficulty communicating because of anxiety is not thought-blocking, thought-blocking can occur in some forms of extreme anxiety.

How is thought blocking diagnosed?

Thought blocking is different from other short-term lapses in cognition. When diagnosing episodes of thought blocking, mental health professionals may first eliminate other possible causes of thought interruption. Below are a few other causes of thought blocking that may be physical. If you are concerned you might be experiencing a health concern, contact a medical doctor for consultation.

Seizures

Petit mal seizures or “absence seizures” occur in individuals with conditions like epilepsy, which affect the nervous system. Petit mal seizures, which often last less than 15 seconds, result from interrupted electrical activity in the brain. A petit mal seizure can appear similar to an episode of thought blocking. The person having the seizure may stare into the distance, stop talking mid-sentence, or stop moving altogether. 

After the seizure, the individual may have trouble remembering what happened. However, petit mal seizures cause a person to stop all voluntary behavior, whereas thought blocking only impacts a person’s ability to recall information.

Brain injury

Some conditions, like strokes, brain tumors, dementia, and physical trauma, can damage the brain. Suppose the brain has sustained major damage to areas responsible for speech and communication. In that case, it is common for an individual to struggle with talking, recalling words, or verbally communicating thoughts. However, these conditions are caused by harm to the brain, while thought blocking may not be. 

Identifying conditions in which thought blocking is present and eliminating other sources of thought interruption can be complex. However, once thought blocking is diagnosed, it is possible to limit its effects.

How is thought blocking treated?

Because thought blocking is a symptom of an underlying issue, that issue must be treated for improvements to occur. Typical components of treatment include the following. 

Therapy

Studies suggest that individuals with psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia may benefit from a treatment combination of therapy and medication. A trained therapist can help clients with schizophrenia manage their symptoms, limiting their impact on their day-to-day life.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is recognized as an effective treatment for individuals with a range of psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia. CBT works by helping clients recognize and challenge their unwanted thought patterns and beliefs. This practice may lead to more positive emotions, healthier behaviors, and reduced symptoms.

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Medication

Medication types may vary depending on the condition causing the thought blocking. A medical professional closely monitors medications; dosages and prescriptions may change over time. If you are on medication for a psychiatric disorder like schizophrenia, take the medication exactly as prescribed. Following your doctor’s instructions and communicating changes in your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors will be crucial to treatment success. In addition, consult with a medical doctor like a psychiatrist before starting, changing, or stopping a medication. 

How to seek support for managing thought blocking

Support can be one of the most beneficial options for anyone experiencing mental health challenges. Support can come from various sources, including but not limited to the following. 

Family and friends

A close and dependable network of people you love and trust is often vital when experiencing a mental illness. If you are caring for someone with distressing symptoms like thought blocking, it can be okay not to know all the answers. Show your support by being there for your loved one, encouraging them to follow through with their treatment plan, and being kind and understanding when periods of thought blocking interrupt your time together.

Community

Managing symptoms like thought blocking can be easier with the help of others who understand the condition. Finding a support group of individuals with the same diagnosis or symptoms can help someone experiencing thought blocking develop much-needed emotional support. These groups often offer friendship, hope, and coping skills that can help individuals manage the symptoms of mental illness.

Informational resources 

Learning more about thought blocking or the psychiatric condition causing it can reassure someone going through its effects. Knowledge is often considered power, and understanding what you are experiencing can help you better manage its effects. By staying well informed about your symptoms and diagnosis, you can ask meaningful questions and offer valuable insight to your healthcare team. 

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Are you concerned with recent lapses in thought or memory?

Online counseling options 

If you want to talk to a therapist to manage your symptoms, consider contacting a provider through an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. Online therapy platforms can provide counseling with licensed, experienced therapists. People who experience thought blocking may find that online therapy removes the distractions connected to attending in-person sessions. Additionally, the ability to schedule appointments at a preferred time can empower people who wish to schedule sessions when they are less likely to be overstimulated or distracted.

Research demonstrates that online therapy can be as effective as most traditional in-person therapy. 

Please note: While therapy may be helpful for people experiencing schizophrenia, antipsychotic medication is essential for proper treatment.  Additionally, online therapy may not be suitable for people experiencing psychosis. Treatment for psychosis may require in-person care from a therapist and psychiatrist, which BetterHelp does not offer at this time.

Counselor reviews

“Shana has helped me tremendously over the past few months. She has assisted me in changing my thought patterns and bad habits. She is very caring, a great listener, and is not judgmental. It is clear how much she cares about her patients. I appreciate her and would recommend her to anyone searching for a counselor.”

“Brentom is an excellent counselor, very easy to talk to, good at aiding me with focusing and reversing negative thought patterns, and being willing to try new techniques.”

Takeaway

The experience of thought blocking can be distressing when you don’t know the cause. Although it is most frequently linked to schizophrenia, it can also be caused by other conditions. If you or someone you care about is having trouble with communication, speak to a doctor immediately to rule out other medical conditions. You can also reach out to a therapist anytime through an online counseling platform or mental health provider in your area.
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