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Thought Stopping – What is it, and Does it Really Work?

thought stopping

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by Victoria Stokes

Could thought stopping be the answer to the static forever whirring away in the background of your mind?

What is thought stopping?

Researchers estimate that as adults we have over six thousand thoughts a day.  Some thoughts are helpful, while others are the opposite. Left unchecked, negative thinking can spiral and compound feelings of anxiety, stress, and self-criticism.

Thought stopping is a technique that aims to stop unwanted thoughts. It involves snapping an elastic band on the wrist, or saying ‘Stop!’ out loud, whenever you notice a negative thought. This process is said to disrupt rumination and help you find relief from feelings of stress and anxiety. It also allows you to switch your focus to more positive, better feeling thoughts.

But does thought stopping even work?

In recent years, thought stopping has fallen out of favour. Some experts believe it doesn’t work and may even lead to emotional avoidance issues. So it depends on what your issue and personality is as to whether it will work for you, and it’s important to weight the pros and cons.

Pros of the technique

What would the pros be for you?

thought stopping

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1.Thought stopping may help you identify patterns.

Thought stopping may help you identify certain thinking and behaviour patterns that have been hindering you.

You might become aware of a cycle that starts with blaming and criticising yourself. Or notice that your thoughts feel particularly overwhelming when you haven’t had enough sleep. When you become aware, you can decide whether you want to identify with that thought or choose one that feels better.

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2. It may help you get to the root cause of your problems.

You can then start to to look at where the root of such thinking cycles comes from, figuring out why those thoughts may have developed in the first place. In turn, this may enable you to prevent unhelpful, self-sabotaging behaviours.

3. Thought stopping may provide temporary relief.

Negative thoughts can be distracting. They often feel overwhelming and prevent you from focusing on the task at hand, be it an assignment that’s approaching deadline or a family celebration you want to enjoy.

In these scenarios, thought stopping may give you a sense of control and temporary relief. You can then focus, and postpone negative thoughts until a time when you can deal with them more effectively.

Cons of the technique

thought stopping

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So then what are the possible negatives to the thought stopping technique?

1. It could lead to emotional avoidance.

The main red flag here is that you can resort to using the technique to punish yourself for having negative thoughts. And then instead of investigating root causes of your negative thinking, you can just try to stop having such thoughts or feeling anything about them.

But when we try to squash down uncomfortable emotions, they get worse and bubble up to the surface eventually, resulting in things like depression, anxiety, or ongoing flus and colds.

An interesting study asking participants to hide their emotions while watching a disturbing video found it increased activity in  the sympathetic nervous system. A small study, to be fair, but worth noting that such increased activity is connected to hypertension, heart failure, and the trigger of several diseases. 

2. It might backfire and make you think about unwanted emotions even more.

Close your eyes and think of anything, except a white bear. You’re thinking about a white bear, aren’t you? ‘Ironic process theory’, also called ‘the white bear problem’, was created by social psychologist Daniel Wegner in the 1980s. The concept is that the more we consciously try to suppress thoughts, the more they are likely to keep resurfacing.

So thought stopping, if it’s a particular thought you are trying to get rid of, could have a rebound effect. That thought could just become stronger and more persistent. Particularly, again, if you are not doing any other work to get to and heal its root cause, such as working with a therapist.

3. Thought stopping can be frustrating and leave you anxious.

Our minds are forever busy, and when you try to stop the flow of unwanted thoughts through a practice like thought stopping it can feel incredibly frustrating when those unwanted thoughts inevitably return. It may feel like a losing battle.

In fact, a Yale University study found that in some cases, thought stopping can actually heighten feelings of anxiety and depression. It can reinforce the idea that the person is unable to cope or gain control.

I tried thought stopping… what happened?

I’ve always been what some people would call an ‘over thinker’. I tend to worry unnecessarily, and I’m prone to bouts of anxiety when under a lot of stress. So thought stopping felt like a natural salve to my problems.

I began implementing it by snapping an elastic band on my wrist when I’d notice racing thoughts and self-criticising thinking patterns. After, I’d make a note of what I’d experienced and then journal through what I’d uncovered.

I found that thought stopping is an effective tool when it comes to being aware of what’s going on in my head. It draws my attention to negative thoughts or unhelpful criticisms before they grow legs and get out of control. This allows me to stop and decide whether or not I want to identify with that thought or question its validity.

But there’s a caveat. For me, thought stopping only works with the crucial second step of noting down the unhelpful thoughts you’ve become aware of and using expressive writing as a tool to explore them.

In my experience, thought stopping only goes so far. If you’re needing more than temporary relief, I’d seek the help of a CBT practitioner instead.

Other options that can help

Again, thought stopping isn’t for everyone. And if you need professional help to manage and understand negative thought spirals, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may be a good way to go.

During CBT, a therapist will actively help you to identify triggers, challenge maladaptive thinking patterns, and improve emotional regulation. Mindfulness practices such as meditation and deep breathing may also be beneficial.

Sick of being controlled by your thoughts? Harley Therapy connects you with a team of highly-regarded CBT therapists from the comfort of our central London clinics. For an affordable alternative, use our sister site to source registered UK-wide therapists and online counsellors.


Victoria Stokes writerVictoria Stokes is a former Deputy Editor turned freelance writer specialising in mental health and wellbeing. 


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Blog Topics: Anxiety & Stress

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