Does thought stopping work?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Thought Stopping.

Thought Stopping.
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What is thought stopping and does it work?

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 the 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 that 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.”

David Joel Miller MS is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC.)  Mr. Miller provides supervision for beginning counselors and therapists and teaches at the local college in the Substance Abuse Counseling program.

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