Thought stopping is a technique intended to prevent people from thinking unwanted thoughts that interfere with mental health and wellness. Once thought to be helpful, thought stopping has been shown to be mostly ineffective and even harmful. There are many other helpful and effective ways to deal with problematic thoughts and overthinking.
What Is Thought Stopping?
Also known as thought suppression, thought stopping is a behavioral modification technique that involves an intentional action done to prevent the mind from thinking thoughts you would rather not entertain.1,2 The idea is that by repeatedly preventing the brain from thinking about certain things, the thoughts will fade out of awareness and no longer come to mind.3
While our ability to think—to problem-solve, pay attention, remember, cherish, and create—is a tremendous asset that allows us to survive and thrive, our ability to think can also work against us. Overthinking can exacerbate stress and contribute to mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. It can prevent us from living fully and enjoying inner peace and satisfaction. It’s natural to want to stop thinking certain thoughts or overthinking in general.
Dr. Raffaello Antonino, a Counselling Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Counselling Psychology at London Metropolitan University, says, “Don’t think about a white elephant. You can think about anything else other than a white elephant. But whatever you do, don’t think about a white elephant.
Just like all the other people, you’re probably now thinking about a white elephant or trying to suppress the thought of a white elephant. This curious phenomenon shows how hard it is for us to control our thoughts, especially when we are trying hard to control them.”
3 Thought Stopping Techniques
Thought stopping is a method of addressing problematic thoughts that comes from behaviorism and is based on the concept of aversive conditioning.2 The process involves taking mildly unpleasant actions to interrupt the thought and prevent it from taking hold. The idea is that if you do something to startle a thought, it will disappear. As it turns out, the actual result is the exact opposite.
Three common thought stopping techniques include:1,2
- Abruptly and firmly ordering the thought to stop
- Abruptly and firmly ordering the thought to stop
- Doing something simple that instantly creates an irritating sensation (e.g., snapping a rubber band on your wrist)
Is Thought Stopping Effective?
Most research into the effectiveness of thought stopping has found that it’s ineffective or even harmful.1 More often than not, it doesn’t provide relief from uncomfortable or unwanted thoughts; instead, it sabotages the person’s effort to deal with thoughts and experiences.3 Thought suppression can actually cause a specific thought to grow stronger and more persistent.
As we actively try to block a thought or avoid thinking about it, one part of the mind complies while another part is constantly scanning to make sure it’s not there, searching for related thoughts to eliminate. Ironically, in trying to follow the command to stop, the brain increases awareness of the thought, making it more accessible, prominent, and persistent.4,5 Furthermore, thought suppression doesn’t offer a replacement or alternative to the thought.1
Thought suppression, in addition to being futile, can be damaging. The return of unwanted thoughts and resulting frustration can reinforce the notion that the thought is terrible, often causing people to believe that it’s harmful or that they’re incapable of handling it. According to a Yale University study, these reactions can increase anxiety and depression.6 It’s also harmful for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Thought stopping has been found to intensify obsessive thoughts, and it is a behavior that easily becomes a compulsion.2
Example of Thought Stopping Study
Dr. Daniel Wegner, professor of psychology at Harvard University and pioneer in the study of thought stopping, has conducted studies involving thought suppression for over two decades.4 In his most famous “white bear” experiment, he instructed some participants not to think of a white bear while talking about what was on their minds.
He told others to think of a white bear in addition to their other thoughts. Then, he had participants repeat the process, this time allowing everyone to think of a white bear. Throughout the experiment, the people who had initially been told not to think about white bears thought of them much more often than those in the other group.4 His observations formed the foundation of his ironic monitoring theory. It is the basis of the rebound effect and how it makes thought suppression ineffective.2,4
When Might Thought Stopping Be the Right Approach?
In 2012, authors of a review in Clinical Psychology Review analyzed different types of studies into thought stopping. They looked at whether those studies involved people with and without diagnosed mental health disorders. It appears that in the absence of a mental health disorder such as OCD, and in cases where the thoughts aren’t severely disruptive to life, thought stopping might be safe to try.
Additionally across studies, participants experienced different degrees of success with thought stopping. In other words, not everyone experienced an intense or bothersome rebound effect, thus leading researchers to conclude that thought stopping should be an individualized approach.7 A series of studies by psychologists Jens Foerster and Nira Liberman revealed that if people first understood thought stopping as a difficult process that can cause rebounding, the process was more successful.5
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8 Techniques to Try Instead of Thought Stopping
While actively trying to stop, suppress, or block thoughts from happening typically doesn’t work, there are therapeutic approaches and techniques designed to help people deal with overthinking and rumination, including distraction techniques, meditation, mindfulness, and acceptance.4
Here are eight techniques to try instead of thought stopping:
Distraction involves actively thinking about and paying attention to something interesting and engaging. The goal is to give your mind something else to think about instead of the distressing thoughts.3,4 Distracting yourself is not the same as denying or avoiding problematic thoughts; instead, you’re directly altering the direction of thoughts by giving yourself permission to think about something else.3
Research supports the effectiveness of distraction as a healthy way to deal with negative thoughts. In a study published in 1993 in the journal Cognition and Emotion, participants living with depression who ruminated about their problems for eight minutes experienced worsening symptoms. Those who actively practiced distraction by focusing on descriptions of places and objects for the same amount of time experienced a significant improvement in mood and symptoms.8
To be most effective, distraction (which can be physical or mental) must be enjoyable or interesting. The specific distraction doesn’t matter as long as you’re engaged and paying attention. One important caveat is that you should do only one thing at a time rather than multitasking. Trying to concentrate on more than one thing increases mental stress, overloads the brain, and can cause it to default to unwanted thoughts.4
2. Meditation & Prayer
Because meditation strengthens mental control, it can also reduce unwanted thoughts.4 There are many different types of meditation, both secular and spiritual, that all have one important feature in common: Meditation aims to hone our ability to concentrate and focus, allowing us to choose what we pay attention to and keep our thoughts directed there.
Prayer is a type of meditation that involves purposefully connecting with a higher power for spiritual growth and meaning. Turning worries over to a higher power has been helpful for many people in quieting thoughts and calming the mind.
Mindfulness is part of meditation, but it’s also a way of living that involves paying complete attention to the present. Mindfulness strengthens mental control to help redirect thoughts.4 Rather than remaining stuck, when you use all your senses to attend to the moment, your negative thoughts gradually lose power. Even in times of stress, mindfulness allows you to stay centered and take constructive action.9
Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up, giving in, or resigning yourself to unwanted, bothersome thoughts. With acceptance, you allow the thoughts to exist rather than trying to stop them, change them, or otherwise struggle against them. By letting them exist but choosing not to fight or suppress them, you take away their power and grip on you.3 Studies support the effectiveness of acceptance in dealing with unwanted thoughts.6
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a research-based approach to mental health that helps people notice their thoughts and observe them curiously without judgment, criticism, or argument.10 Then, you learn to go beyond thoughts to live mindfully, taking committed action to what you value for yourself and your life.10
5. Facing Your Thoughts
Actively and directly facing your thoughts has been shown to reduce their power.4 While facing worries and fears can seem intimidating and undesirable, doing so goes a long way in diminishing them because you’re teaching yourself that you can handle anything.
Facing thoughts is the hallmark of exposure therapy, which is a helpful approach to treating anxiety and phobias. It’s also key in exposure with response prevention (ERP), a research-supported approach to reducing the symptoms of OCD.
6. Thought Replacement With Positive Thinking
Intentionally replacing worries and negative thoughts with more positive thoughts can be a useful way of shifting thought patterns. Instead of stopping thoughts when you notice them, you immediately replace them with something more positive. In 2019, researchers studied this approach with people living with OCD and concluded that replacing unwanted thoughts with positive thoughts is helpful.11
7. Schedule Time to Think About Your Unwanted Thoughts
Rather than trying to suppress your thoughts, take charge of them by deciding to think about them on your terms. Scheduling a time to think about problems and worries can make it easier to let go of them when they keep surfacing throughout the day. The idea is that promising your mind that you’ll address the thoughts later allows it to move them to the back burner.4
Journaling or otherwise intentionally expressing problematic thoughts (e.g., through poetry, music, or art) helps get them out of your head and in front of you where you can see them differently. Keeping a journal can also be an excellent tool for therapy. It can be a valuable way to organize what you want to discuss. If you’re comfortable, you can even share with a therapist.
When to Consider Therapy
If you can’t shake certain thoughts, or stressors are preventing you from living your life on your terms, working with a professional mental health therapist can make a positive difference. Also, if you’re living with depression, anxiety, OCD, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or any other mental-health disorder, therapy can be crucial in helping identify and change unhelpful thought patterns.
Here are five therapeutic approaches that can help change thought patterns:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Acceptance and Commitment therapy
- Exposure therapy
- Exposure and response prevention (ERP)
- Trauma-informed care
It’s important to find a therapist you feel comfortable working with. See our guide on directory to get started on your journey to freedom from troublesome thoughts.
“Thought stopping may seem like an obvious choice when faced with difficult, distressing thoughts. This is, for example, the case with OCD obsessions, or even with PTSD flashbacks, up to milder situations like thinking about your partner cheating on you or that they don’t love you. We’re all used to attempting to eliminate in whatever way possible what is seen as painful, distressing, and unwanted. Unfortunately, though, thought-stopping is a bit like pushing a volleyball underwater: The more you push it downwards the stronger it pushes back,” says Dr. Antonino.
Final Thoughts on Thought Stopping Techniques
You don’t have to remain trapped in unwanted thoughts. Use the strategies mentioned here or work with a therapist to free yourself and live your life fully. Thought stopping techniques may not work for everyone, but fortunately there are many effective approaches to managing and treating negative thoughts.