Does thought stopping work?

By David Joel Miller.

What is thought stopping and does it work?

Thought Stopping.

Thought Stopping.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Thought stopping is a common cognitive behavioral therapy technique. Some people, clients, and counselors alike report that thought stopping can be very helpful for reducing or avoiding rumination, catastrophizing, and other unwanted thoughts. Learning to stop unwanted thoughts can be helpful for reducing depression, anxiety and recurrent thoughts of substance use. Others have reported that thought stopping was unhelpful and did not work. Why does thought stopping work for some people and not others?

Not thinking about something does not work.

There’s a big difference between trying not to think about something and getting your mind to stop going over and over the thought once you have it. The human brain doesn’t work well at preventing thoughts. Setting up a list of things to “not think about” does not prevent those thoughts from reentering your mind. That no-think list will keep your mind occupied looking for the very thoughts are trying to avoid.

If you have had a history of negative thoughts, negative self-talk, or the kind of recurrent negative thinking that damages your self-esteem, you will find the thoughts recur whether you want them to or not. People in drug and alcohol recovery find that their default thought, no matter what happens, is likely to be I need or want a drink. Maybe I could do a little drug just this one time.

In a past post, I wrote about “don’t think about elephants.” What people find is that the effort to “not think about” anything keeps that thought right at the edge of consciousness waiting for its chance to pop back into your current thinking. If you’re not sure about this, sit for a while and don’t think about something. You will find that every time you tell yourself to not think about it, the thought miraculously enters your mind.

Researchers have used both “white bears” and “red Volkswagen’s” in various combinations to study the effects of thought stopping. The studies are enlightening, but make it hard to set firm rules for when and how to use thought stopping. If you’re someone who has recurrent, unwanted thoughts, you need to practice and probably work with a professional to become proficient in using thought stopping to make your life more manageable. There are some other techniques you can learn that are probably more effective than thought stopping.

Thought stopping is most effective when used briefly in crisis situations. Telling yourself not to reach for that drink or drug can help in the moment. When your mind tries to take into a dangerous neighborhood telling it to “knock that off” may keep you out of trouble for the moment, but it won’t last for very long if you don’t change some of the things.

Suppressing unwanted thoughts requires cognitive effort. When you put a lot of effort into something, you get tired. Humans are cognitive misers and customarily revert to patterns that don’t require a lot of effort. Letting your guard down against unwanted thoughts can happen quite quickly.

Your mood impacts the effort needed to suppress unwanted thoughts. When you are depressed, it is harder to stop negative, painful thoughts. Being in a happy, optimistic mood makes it easier to suppress negative thoughts.

You need to remember some things and forget others.

Forgetting important things can be very frustrating. It can be equally upsetting if you find you can’t forget the painful past. Unwanted and intrusive memories are characteristic of several mental illnesses. People who have been victims of trauma, those with PTSD especially, wish they could forget. There are a lot of materials available to help people improve memory, but far fewer to help people forget the painful, unhelpful memories. Change your thinking techniques are one of those few tools that may be helpful in preventing unhelpful thoughts from taking over your consciousness.

Researchers have found that remembering feelings from the past can influence how we feel in the present. The more you think about an unhappy memory, the more depressed or anxious you may become right now. So, if telling yourself not to think about your ex just brings the sadness you experienced during the breakup into your mind, how do you prevent spending all your time thinking about the things you wish had not happened. Thought changing methods may reduce the amount of time you spend caught in the downward spiral of unhelpful thinking.

Euphoric recall – thoughts that need to be stopped.

Some thoughts that seem positive at first glance turn out to be highly inaccurate and unhelpful. It’s common in addiction for people to suddenly experience thoughts of the good times they had when drinking or using. Remember that time you partied? What’s hard to remember is that you got into a fight at the party, took off in a hurry, maybe got arrested for driving under the influence. The same thing happens when dysfunctional relationships end. You tend to remember the good times in the beginning and not the bad events later.

What is thought stopping?

Thought stopping is the process of monitoring your thinking, detecting unhelpful or unwanted thoughts and getting your mind off that thought and back onto something more helpful. It’s important to take active steps to prevent unwanted, intrusive thoughts from taking over control of your mind.

One way of thinking about thought stopping is a process of transforming automatic unhelpful thoughts into cues to activate your thought stopping and thought transforming mental systems.

Thought stopping is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced.

“Recent research indicates that people control unwanted memories by stopping memory retrieval, using mechanisms similar to those used to stop reflexive motor responses” (Anderson, M., Levy, B., 2009.) The article goes on to say that the control of unwanted thoughts and memories happens in the lateral prefrontal cortex, the executive function of the brain. If your brain has an effective CEO, he can control the activity in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that regulates storage and retention of memories. Learning what to remember and what to forget is a skill you can develop.

As people grow and develop, they could become better at regulating which memories are prioritized for storage in which are slated for deletion. We would expect it to be harder for young people to forget the painful memories. Life events that alter your brain chemistry, trauma, depression, anxiety, or a substance use disorder appear to reduce your control over memory storage and retrieval. For example, people who are addicted to methamphetamine had “lower grey matter intensity in the brain region associated with performance” on both thought stopping and the ability to look at past events in another way, a skill called reappraisal or reframing (Tang, D., Schmeichel, B., 2014)

Thought stopping shouldn’t be the only tool in your self-help toolbox.

So, not thinking about things often does not work. You can use thought stopping to interrupt the flow of an unhelpful thought. Anyone who’s tried to do mindfulness or meditation knows that as soon as you empty the mind, a mob of thoughts tries to reoccupy that emptiness. The more you practice, the better you can get at keeping unwelcome thoughts out of your head. In the short run, you may need some mental protection from other skills.

Practice becoming more optimistic. Learned to fill your mind with positive thoughts that can guard the space against the return of unhelpful thoughts. Distracting techniques, filling your mind with other helpful thoughts, appears to make thought stopping more effective.

Are there times you shouldn’t use thought stopping?

Turns out that there are times when thought stopping is not helpful. People have experienced a loss in their life, the death of a loved one, may find that simply trying not to think about that death leaves unresolved grief which they may need to deal with later. While going on with life may work temporarily, eventually you need to come to terms with the loss and find a way to make meaning out of that experience.

If you have a problem that needs to be solved, not thinking about it is likely to interfere with solving the problem or dealing with the consequences. Thought stopping is not effective when eventually you will have to solve the problem.

People who were on a diet and tried to simply not think about eating are at increased risk to binge eat when the thoughts of food return (Sarah L. Gaskell et al., 2001.)

Thought stopping is a verbal technique which works best to correct unhelpful self-talk. Thought stopping is less effective when physical objects such as people, places, and things try to the unhelpful thoughts. For those objects, you need to avoid places where you’ll see them. It’s hard to avoid thinking about having another drink when you’re sitting in a bar.

Some additional cautions about thought stopping.

When trying to stop unwanted thoughts, people tend to look around the room. Be careful what you look at, the things you look at while trying to avoid thinking about something, get paired with the original unwanted thoughts. You look around the room and see a particular lamp or picture, the next time you look around the room those objects are likely to bring back the unwanted thoughts.

When doing thought stopping, look at something positive and reinforcing. If you wear a religious symbol, look at that. Twelve-step groups often have quotes from the recovery literature and helpful sayings on the walls so that people who are trying to avoid thinking about their issues find it easier to shift from unwanted thoughts to helpful thoughts.

If you do have recurrences of unhelpful thoughts, don’t beat yourself up and create those thoughts being triggers for negative self-talk. Dismiss the unwanted thoughts as quickly as possible and shift your attention to helpful thoughts.

My take on thought stopping?

I think of thought stopping like being in the swimming pool and trying to hold that water polo ball under the surface. The harder you try to hold it under the more it pops back. Eventually, you get too tired to keep holding it down. What you need to do with that ball of unwanted thoughts is toss it out of the pool of your life, or get out of the pool and moved to a better environment.

In an upcoming post, I want to walk you through some techniques that should be more effective at helping you get rid of those unhelpful thoughts on a long-term basis than simply trying to “not think about it.”

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life.

You can recover. You are cruising along the road of life and then wham, something knocks you in the ditch. If you have gone through a divorce, breakup, or lost a job, your life may have gotten off track. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel that explores the world of a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

Other books are due out soon; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on my writing projects, speaking and teaching, along with comments on recent news in the field of counseling – sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page or my Facebook author’s page, David Joel Miller. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

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Thinking mistakes you are making.

By David Joel Miller.

Is your thinking full of bad habits?

Thinking

Thinking mistakes you are making.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

It is easy to drift into bad habits. Do something a certain way a few times and that becomes the default setting for your brain. After that, you need to put conscious effort into responding in a different way.

Many times people drift into bad thought habits and from then on having unhelpful thoughts pop into your mind becomes your usual way of thinking. Just because this is the way you always think about things does not make those thoughts true. Your bad thought habits may be making your problems worse and interfering with your having a happy life.

There are 11 ways your thinking may be full of bad habits.

1. Thinking it is all about you, personalizing.

If you walk into the room and people laugh you might think they were all talking about you. When someone is short or curt with you, do you think they are being disrespectful? Many times in life when someone ignores us or is less than helpful it has nothing to do with us. One of the great lessons of growing up is that most of the time other people are just too preoccupied with their own lives and problems to give you a second thought.

2. You magnifying mind blows things out of proportion.

When you think about what could happen, do you imagine the worst possible thing? If your mind can turn a minor inconvenience into the end of the world you have trained your thinking to be a magic magnifying mind.

You went on a date, you liked that other person and they said they would give you a call. But the next day comes and goes and no call. You are now convinced that they will never call, that you will never meet that special someone and that you will live the rest of your life alone. When they call an hour later you are now so bummed out from ruminating about this life alone you just don’t want to talk to them and you do not answer the phone.

There are lots of variations to this thought pattern. It rains for a few minutes and you are sure it will flood, you get stuck behind a truck and are sure you will be late to work and get fired. In each scenario, your mind leaps from a small problem to a happy-life threatening outcome.

3. Minimizing, discounting the positive.

You got ninety-nine questions out of a hundred right, but you are upset about the question you missed. Some people find it hard to take credit for the things they do well. The underlying thought here is that you should be perfect and that anything less is not acceptable.

If you can’t take a compliment, or you find it hard to accept credit for what you have done, you may have trained your brain to ignore anything you did well and focus only on the mistakes of life. This can result in a pretty bleak, discouraging way of looking at things.

4. Either Or, Black and White thinking, means you are either a winner or a loser.

High achievers are at extra risk for this one. If you have trained your brain to go for being the best at everything it can be hard to accept the size of the achievement that a second place might be.

Do not let your brain cheat you out of enjoying an accomplishment by insisting you have to be better than everyone else to be worthwhile.

5. Taking events out of context.

So you get the job but all you remember from the process is that you did not have a good answer for one of the questions. One criticism from your partner becomes they “never” like anything you do. You are on vacation for two weeks but the thing you most remember is the traffic jam on the way out-of-town that first day.

If when you think back on past events all you can remember are the rough spots you are falling into making too much of the small things and forgetting the big ones.

6. Jumping to conclusions.

He didn’t return my text right away so that means he does not want to talk to me. You feel a lump somewhere and don’t go to the doctor convinced you must have cancer and only days to live. Many people have developed the habit of jumping over all the possible good outcomes and landing in a pit of pain.

7. Overgeneralizing leads you to bad places.

“I did not get this job” becomes “I will never get a job.” That thought can get you so worked up that you stop looking for work. Believing because something did not go your way once that means you will never achieve your objective, can become the greatest obstacle to progress.

8. Self-Blame, believing you made a mistake so you are stupid, no good.

This mental and verbal self-abuse does not motivate you to work harder. Beating yourself up leads to feelings of helplessness and giving up. You shouldn’t accept this kind of treatment from others. Don’t abuse yourself this way.

9. Are you that good at mind reading?

Do you tell yourself, “When he does that it means — If she loved me she would know.”

Believing others should know what you want and need and then thinking less of them for not reading your mindsets your relationships up for failure. Believing that others should be able to read your mind and anticipate your needs without your voicing them creates misunderstandings.

10. Comparing up, that model or star is better than me.

Comparing yourself to others sets you up for disappointment. There are always people who have more friends on social media and who make more money. To feel better about yourself stop comparing. Especially do not compare yourself in your gardening outfit to someone walking down the red carpet.

11. Catastrophizing is thinking the worst possible outcome will happen.

Do you think “he is late, he probably got in an accident and died?” When things happen that are not to your liking is your first thought that this absolutely must not happen? Catastrophizing is looking for the worst possible outcome and then mentally rehearsing that thought in your head until it demolishes your sanity.

If you are practicing any of these bad thought habits work with someone on changing these unhelpful thoughts to more adaptive ones.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life.

You can recover. Your cruising along the road of life and then wham, something knocks you in the ditch. If you have gone through a divorce, break up, or lost a job your life may have gotten off track. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel that explores the world of a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

Other books are due out soon; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on my writing projects, speaking and teaching, along with comments on recent news in the field of counseling – sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page or my Facebook author’s page, David Joel Miller. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.