Understanding Thought Stopping Therapy For Mental Wellness

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti
Updated February 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, six million people in the United States experience intrusive thoughts. These unwanted disruptions can cause individuals to feel stressed, anxious, and sad while making it difficult to concentrate on specific tasks. As a result, many of those who struggle with intrusive thoughts seek out strategies, like thought stopping, that may alleviate their symptoms. 

One of these strategies is known as thought stopping, with some referring to the process of learning this technique as thought stopping therapy. Thought stopping therapy is a technique that can help people manage negative or unwanted thoughts that can interfere with their daily lives. 

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Critics of this technique claim that it can sometimes lead to a rebound effect, causing individuals to think more often about something they had previously suppressed. It has also been criticized for not addressing the root cause of a person's negative or intrusive thoughts. It's best to consult a mental health care provider before using techniques like thought stopping, as they can help you determine whether a method is right for you and your specific condition or illness. 

Even if this isn’t the right technique for you, it can still be helpful to find other ways to address your intrusive ideas. While these ideas may not be immediately harmful to your health, they can be disruptive and negatively impact your life over time. If your intrusive thoughts are due to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), thought-stopping techniques and thought suppression may initially make your negative thinking worse and may not lead to positive changes. 

In these cases, it may be crucial to speak to a mental health professional about how to stop unwanted thoughts. Other techniques, such as cognitive restructuring, cognitive thought exercises, and exposure therapy may be beneficial for obsessive-compulsive disorder or severe mental health conditions like anxiety or bipolar disorder. 

The impact of negative thinking

Negative thoughts may stem from multiple sources, including past trauma, societal pressures, or stressful situations in your daily life. These can often take the form of self-doubt, fear of failure, and feelings of inadequacy. Everyone experiences negative thoughts from time to time; however, when these thoughts become overwhelming or persistent, they can start to have a negative impact on mental health and emotional well-being. 

One reason negative thoughts can be so harmful is that they often lead to a cycle of negative thinking. For example, when you feel anxious about a social event, you might start to worry that others will judge you or that you won't fit in. This can lead to more anxiety, which in turn, can make it even harder to feel confident and at ease in social situations. Over time, this cycle can make it more difficult to cope with everyday challenges and can even start to affect other areas of your life.

What is thought stopping?

Thought stopping is a skill that therapists may teach people to help them deal with unwanted or intrusive thoughts. This technique focuses on helping individuals create healthier ways of thinking by stopping negative thoughts in their tracks and replacing them with more positive ones.

When we practice this technique, we're training our minds to be more aware of the thoughts we're having and to be more in control of how we react to them. This increased awareness can allow us to recognize when a negative thought is starting to take hold. We can then make the choice to stop it before it becomes overwhelming. With consistent practice, we can learn to catch these ideas more easily and shift our focus away from them. 

This technique is not about ignoring or suppressing thoughts entirely but learning to better manage them. Negative beliefs are a normal part of life, and trying to avoid them completely might be unrealistic. With it, we can balance our thoughts by redirecting our attention to more productive ideas. This technique may be a useful technique for building resilience, improving emotional well-being, and reducing the impact that negative thoughts can have on our daily lives. 

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Techniques for managing negative thoughts

In some cases, these techniques can be helpful for managing problematic thinking and creating a healthier mindset. There are various thought stopping techniques that may be beneficial, depending on a person’s preferences and needs. It may be a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional before engaging in a practice like this. You may also want to try different techniques to see which works best for you.

The "stop" technique

The "Stop" technique involves firmly saying "Stop!" (either out loud or in your head) when a negative thought emerges. This command can act as a mental interruption, helping you break the chain of negative thinking. You then have the opportunity to redirect your focus to something more positive.

Thought replacement

Thought replacement is the process of consciously replacing a negative thought with a more positive or neutral one. When you notice a negative thought, you can pause for a moment and think of something that brings you joy. You could also choose a more positive thought to focus on. This practice may help shift your mindset and reduce the power of negative thinking.

Rubber band technique

To implement the rubber band technique, you wear a rubber band around your wrist and gently snap it when you notice a negative thought. The physical sensation can serve as a reminder to stop the thought and refocus your attention on something more positive. Note that, because this technique can cause pain and minor injury, it is unlikely to be recommended by a healthcare professional. 

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that can help you reduce stress and anxiety by focusing on tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in your body. As you practice this, it can help you become more aware of your thoughts and make it easier to stop negativity when it arises.

Visualization

Visualization involves using your imagination to create mental images that promote positive thinking. When a negative thought comes up, try to visualize a calming or happy scene, like a beautiful beach or a memory that makes you smile. This can help shift your focus away from negative ideas.

Auditory interruption

Auditory interruption methods such as snapping your fingers or clapping your hands, for example, can help disrupt negative thinking by creating a sudden noise. This noise serves as a cue to stop the thought and redirect your attention to something more positive or neutral.

Scheduled worry time

Scheduled worry time involves setting aside a specific time each day to focus on your concerns or negative beliefs. By designating a limited time for this purpose, you can reduce the frequency of negative thoughts throughout the day and gain more control over your thought patterns.

Thought stopping may be an effective tool to deal with negative thoughts by stopping them in their tracks and thinking of something positive instead. It can be beneficial to consult with a mental health professional about this skill, as it may help increase your control over your thinking and improve your mental well-being.

Does it work?

It may be possible for thought stopping to help an individual manage negative thoughts and improve their overall mental well-being. With this technique, some people may develop a greater sense of control over their thoughts and experience reduced anxiety and stress. 

However, it might not be the best option for everyone, particularly for those with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD often experience repetitive, unwanted thoughts and may feel an intense need to perform certain actions to reduce anxiety. In some cases, these techniques could make OCD symptoms worse by increasing the focus on unwanted ideas. 

For people with OCD or other mental health concerns, it may be important to consult a mental health professional to ensure potentially harmful psychological interventions are avoided. There are various evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention (ERP), that have proven to be effective in managing OCD symptoms. 

Finding the right approach to mental wellness is a personal journey, and what works for one person may not necessarily work for another.

Alternatives

If these techniques don’t work for you, or you prefer to use other methods for managing negative thought patterns, you can try alternative options. Instead of these  techniques, you might try one of the following:

Meditation

As an alternative, meditation uses mindfulness and concentration to direct your focus to your breath, a mantra, or a particular sensation. This can help you gain more control over your thoughts and emotions.

Journaling

Journaling may offer a way to process emotions and thoughts by putting them down on paper. Through journaling, you can better understand your mental patterns and potentially identify solutions to challenging situations. 

Acceptance

Acceptance involves acknowledging and accepting negative thoughts and emotions without judgment. This may lead to greater emotional resilience and a more balanced perspective on life's challenges.

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Online therapy

Thought stopping is sometimes used as a cognitive-behavioral technique in online therapy. Online therapists can teach you how to recognize the early signs of distressing thoughts and then guide you through a series of steps to halt these thoughts and replace them with more positive or neutral ones. You can then redirect your focus to calming or constructive activities such as deep breathing exercises or engaging in a hobby, for instance. 

Research in the field of mental health has confirmed that internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy can help reduce intrusive thoughts. One recent study noted a significant decline in the presence of obsessive thoughts among those diagnosed with OCD after participating in online therapy. 

One of the advantages of using thought stopping in online therapy is the convenience that it offers. Clients can receive guidance and support from their therapists through video calls, in-app messages, or emails, allowing them to practice the technique from the comfort of their own space. This can be particularly helpful for those who may feel embarrassed or uncomfortable discussing their unwanted thoughts in person. Online therapeutic settings have also been known to put some individuals at ease when discussing mental health challenges and other sensitive topics.

BetterHelp is an online platform that connects people to qualified mental health professionals who may be able to teach them these techniques. A trained therapist can also teach you other techniques to help improve mental health and maintain overall well-being. 

Takeaway

Thought-stopping therapy may be useful for managing negative thoughts, especially if you have anxiety or are experiencing more stress than usual. By learning to interrupt and replace unwanted thoughts, you can gain greater control over your emotional well-being. Although thought stopping may not be suitable for everyone, particularly those with OCD, there are alternative strategies that can also be effective. Online therapy can provide a convenient platform for learning and practicing these techniques.

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