Reduce Stress with Thought Stopping

Sometimes an unwanted thought or worry grabs you and won’t let go. Perhaps you have an upsetting worry that continually intrudes into your thinking and keeps you from enjoying a pleasant evening with friends. Or maybe you’re trying to fall asleep, and the thoughts racing around in your head make sleeping impossible.

You recognize that there’s nothing you can do about your worry and that your worrying is only making things worse. You’d be better off if you could somehow stop thinking about this. But how?

That’s where a technique called thought stopping can be useful. It’s an effective way of keeping repetitive worries and upsets temporarily out of your mind, and it’s also effective in weakening those thoughts, making it less likely that they’ll return.

Concentrating on two things at the same time is hard. So if your mind is flooded with distressing thoughts, change course. Find something else, a “wanted” thought you actually enjoy thinking about.

Here’s how to get this technique to work for you:

  1. Write down your unwanted thoughts.

    On a piece of paper, write down three or four thoughts that repeatedly trigger distress. It could be an upsetting memory (your embarrassment when you said something dumb at a meeting), a future fear (an upcoming dental visit), or an imagined anxiety (a plane crash).

  2. Think of some pleasant replacement thoughts.

    Write down three or four pleasant, happy thoughts you may have, such as taking a great vacation, achieving a long-term goal, skiing down a mountain, shopping — any pleasant experience, past or future. Keep these pleasant thoughts in your memory so you can easily bring them into consciousness.

  3. Focus on an unwanted thought.

    Find a place where you’ll be undisturbed for about 20 minutes. Sitting or lying comfortably, take some deep breaths and relax your body as much as you can. Close your eyes and select one of your unwanted thoughts. (Don’t choose your most distressing thought at the beginning. You’ll get to the tougher ones later.)

    Get into your distressing thought using all your senses — what it looks like, feels like, and so on. Hold onto that unwanted thought for a bit.

  4. Yell “stop!”

    Now (and this may sound a bit strange) yell out the word “stop.” At the same time, picture a red-and-white hexagonal stop sign — you know, the kind you see on the street corner. Make your sign large and vivid.

  5. Replace that thought.

    Replace that unwanted thought with one of your pleasant thoughts. Mentally shift your attention to that positive image and feeling. Immerse yourself in this replacement thought, strengthening it with visual images, sounds, and maybe even smells and tastes (Thanksgiving dinner?).

  6. Repeat this process.

    Do this again with the same unwanted thought. Then try it with another unwanted thought. If your pleasant replacement thought loses some of its potency, use one of your others. After you get better at this, stop yelling “stop” and only yell the word in your head. You’re now ready to put this into practice in real life.

The image of the sign and the vocal or silent “stop” will disrupt your thought sequence and temporarily put the unwanted thought out of your mind. Be warned, however: It probably will return, and you may have to repeat this sequence again. And again. If your stress-producing thought or image is strong, it may take many repetitions of this technique to weaken or eliminate it. Stick with it.

A variation of the thought-stopping technique that has proved useful for many people is to use a rubber band to help interrupt a distressing thought. Simply take an ordinary rubber band and put it around your wrist. Now, whenever you notice an intrusive or unwanted thought crowding your thinking, pull the elastic and let it snap your wrist.

This shouldn’t be painful — just a sharp reminder that you want this distressing thought to go. Use your mental stop sign and remember to replace your unwanted thought with something more pleasant.

One way of enhancing this “stop” technique is to combine it with a breathing technique. It works like this. Instead of replacing your unwanted thought with a pleasant one, focus instead on your breathing. Take some slow, deep breaths and begin counting your exhaled breaths, forward from one to ten and then backward from ten to one. Repeat this process every time you encounter those unwanted, distressing thoughts.

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