How do you stop unwanted thoughts?

By David Joel Miller.

How do you get rid of painful, unhelpful thoughts?

Thought Stopping.

Thought Stopping.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Changing unhelpful thoughts is an important part of the process of recovery. These techniques are commonly used in cognitive behavioral therapy, a proven, effective, treatment for emotional problems. Thought stopping is one of the common ways of attempting to prevent the impact of recurring negative, unhelpful thoughts. In a previous post, I wrote about what thought stopping is, when you might want to use it and some of the problems you might encounter. Now let’s look at some specific, related methods you might use to stop those unwanted, unhelpful thoughts. Different theoretical orientations and the various mental health specialties may use different names for these techniques, but the ideas are essentially the same.

Distracting yourself from negative thinking.

As a short-term solution, thought distracting, can interrupt the train of unhelpful thoughts (Wegner et al., 1987). Be careful to not to look all around your environment at a lot of things which might later become cues for the unwanted thought. Use a transitional object that has helpful, positive associations. Religious symbols, a piece of jewelry that brings back positive memories, inspirational quotes can all be helpful in interrupting the current negative thought.

Thought substitution – think about something else.

Shifting your thinking to something more helpful has been shown to result in forgetting the thought you were trying to stop. One approach to grief work is to shift your thinking from the pain of the loss to the happy memories that you have of the person who is no longer in your life.

When dieting, rather than trying to not think about food, try to think about the improved health towards which you are working. Think about how much money you’re saving by not buying cigarettes, not about your efforts to stop smoking.

Think about a hobby or project you want to work on. When you’re busy thinking about redecorating a room or fixing your car, there’s less mental space to ruminate about unhelpful thoughts. If you’ve ever experienced flow, you have been so engrossed in an activity that you lost track of time; you may have noticed that thoughts of problems, addictions, and worries disappeared.

Moving towards positive, helpful thoughts is much more effective than trying to sit and not think unhelpful thoughts.

Use stress reduction behaviors.

Mindfulness and meditation can be helpful in reducing the tension you would feel while wrestling with unhelpful thoughts. Physical exercise can also be helpful. The human brain doesn’t like to do the slow, tiring work involved in deep thinking. As you begin to walk faster, your brain is more likely to drop the unhelpful thoughts to stay focused on your exercise routine.

Make friends with your feelings.

Efforts to avoid negative feelings by suppressing them don’t work. Neither do efforts to solve your emotional pains by focusing on them, ruminating over them, constantly asking yourself why. Trying to avoid sadness by not feeling can render you numb and unable to feel happiness.

Come to recognize that feelings you don’t like are likely to come and go, but they do provide you information. Feeling lonely can motivate you to seek out other human companionship. Learn to surf the waves of emotion in your mind rather than insisting that you shouldn’t be feeling what you’re feeling.

This approach is sometimes called monitoring your thoughts and feelings. You simply note that the thought has come, and then you watch it go. Not wrestling with your feelings allows you to escape their grasp.

Cognitive restructuring can help you change unhelpful thoughts.

Cognitive restructuring often begins with keeping a thought record or journal. The goal is to learn to recognize your own mental processes. Not every thought you have requires an action. Just because you think it, doesn’t make it so. Rather than getting carried away by unhelpful thoughts, learn to evaluate your thinking. Practice increasing your helpful thoughts and becoming more optimistic.

Practice reframing your thoughts by setting positive goals you wish to approach rather than giving unhelpful thoughts more prominence by focusing on the things to be avoided.

Disputing unhelpful thoughts.

Many negative, unhelpful thoughts are based on faulty assumptions. You walk into the room, and people start laughing, it’s easy to think they’re laughing at you. Learn to argue with these unhelpful thoughts. Maybe someone just told a joke, maybe they’re all having a good time.

Remember, you don’t have to believe everything you think. If you have a magic, magnifying mind probably you have had many experiences of thinking that other people’s behavior has something to do with you. If they look at you, did you think they were judging you? Check these thoughts out with someone you can trust. There’s a good chance they looked at you because you were there.

Evaluating the evidence for the thoughts you have.

People who are depressed or high in anxiety, frequently have a lot of negative, unhelpful thoughts. You get a bad grade on the test, and you may have told yourself you’re stupid or a failure. If you look carefully at the evidence, you may find that your scores on tests are about the same as other students in your class, possibly even better. Getting a “B” on the test is not the same thing as failing.

Think you’re extremely fat? Sit for a while outside the shopping mall, preferably with a reliable friend, and keep track of how many people entering the mall appear to weigh more than you do. If you tell yourself the truth, you may find out you’re about average. Certainly, you may have room for improvement, but calling yourself names and judging yourself is unhelpful. If you want to motivate yourself to exercise and get into shape, you will do it more effectively by praising yourself for the efforts you make to eat healthily and increase your exercise.

Train your brain to stop thinking those thoughts.

You can use conditioning techniques to train your brain to avoid unhelpful thoughts in the same way you might train a child not to do something dangerous. When the unhelpful thought enters your mind, yell “STOP” either verbally or mentally. Pair thoughts of smoking with pictures you have seen of seriously ill people.

For some conditions, professionals recommend keeping a rubber band around your wrist and snapping it to remind you not to think that thought. This kind of conditioning probably works better for helping you not do things that may seem enjoyable in the moment but have long-term negative consequences.

In using conditioning techniques be careful to avoid behaviors that might be harmful or addicting such as cutting or other nonsuicidal self-injury.

For the alcoholic, when the automatic thought “I need a drink” occurs they can automatically tell themselves “no I don’t, I’m in recovery and can handle this situation without a drink.”

Coupling these self-conditioning methods with some of the other techniques above can train your brain to automatically shift from an unhelpful thought to a positive, helpful thought.

Which of these thought-changing methods do you think would help you?

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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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.

Use Thought Stopping to get rid of negative thoughts

By David Joel Miller

Are your own thoughts causing you problems?

Thought Stopping

Thought Stopping
Photo courtesy of Flickr (jurvetson)

Negative emotions, depression, anxiety, and anger are often preceded by negative thoughts. If your own thoughts are making your life worse it is time to get those thoughts turned off.

Thought stopping is a tool you can use to quiet the mind and get those runaway thoughts to stop controlling you. When you find your mind occupied with an unhelpful thought, train yourself to mentally yell STOP or any other command you find effective in getting that thought to stop talking.

Arguing with the unhelpful thought or “disputing” this thought creates room for more helpful thoughts. If you have the thought “I never do anything right” tell yourself “Stop that, I do to do things right some of the time.”

Using this STOP command, especially with an added “correction” helps you reduce unhealthy thoughts and increase positive thoughts in 3 ways.

1. You train yourself to have fewer negative thoughts

Practice telling those unhelpful thoughts to stop and over time you will get fewer of them. The mentally yelling stop becomes a form of punishing the negative thoughts. Punishing the negative thoughts rather than beating yourself up for having them rewards you by having fewer negative thoughts.

The more you practice thought stopping the more positive you become and the healthier your mind becomes. Breaking entrenched habits takes many repetitions and thought stopping is something you can easily do many times a day.

2. Thought stopping distracts you from an unhelpful thought.

Stay focused on the unhelpful thought and it gets reinforced. The more you think that negative thought the more it becomes an automatic thought and eventually it may reach the level of a core belief.

Tell someone they are stupid often enough and they believe you. Tell yourself that you are stupid and eventually your mind will make mistakes to try to make this self-talk true.

Use as many methods as you can find to take the focus off those negative thoughts and you will interrupt their control over your mind.

3. Disputing that thought can turn a negative thought into a positive affirmation.

If yelling at them or distracting yourself from them does not get those negative thoughts out of your head try adding a tag on the end. Include an argument with this negative thought in every conversation and the unhelpful thought will start talking less.

Have a recurring thought that “I can’t take this?” Next time you hear that tape play, add on the disclaimer at the end. “Yes I can take this, I have handled tough situations before.”

The alcoholic or drug addict gets frequent thoughts from their brain – “I need a drink, I need to get high.” Recovering people have learned to tell themselves every time those thoughts come scratching around – “No I don’t need a drink or a fix.” “I am in recovery and can handle this clean and sober.”

The results for thought stopping?

Thought stopping has been shown to be effective about 70% of the time for phobias. The more unreasonable the fear or phobia the better thought stopping works. It is reported to be very helpful in coping with cravings in addiction or managing other urges.

Thought stopping has been less effective when the problem is obsessive-compulsive behaviors. For compulsive rituals, the successes rate for thought stopping is closer to 20%. Thought stopping is primarily meant for getting rid of negative or unhelpful thinking. For OCD behaviors something more complete like exposure and response prevention is recommended.

Exposure and response prevention is not recommended for addictions. Having an alcoholic sit in a bar and test themselves increases the risk of failing one more test and convincing themselves they will never get clean.

If you are unsure what will work best for your condition, try working with a professional or experienced peer person.

Do you have any default thoughts that are not helpful? Might thought stopping help you get those thoughts under control?

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.