Thought-stopping describes the process of suppressing, or pushing away, unwanted thoughts. This cognitive behavioral technique aims to disrupt negative thinking patterns and redirect thoughts to something that helps relieve distress.
The goal is to reduce and eventually prevent thoughts that trigger unhelpful or potentially harmful behaviors.
At first glance, thought-stopping often seems like a useful approach for concerns like:
- repeated cycles of the same anxious or fearful thoughts
- negative thought spirals (like catastrophic thinking)
- intrusive thoughts
It’s an approach that’s been around for
Most mental health experts agree that other strategies help people address unpleasant and unwanted thoughts more effectively, with longer-lasting results.
In theory, thought-stopping works like this: When a thought you’d rather not have begins creeping into your consciousness, you identify it as unwanted or intrusive and then take action to push it away.
You might do that using one of a few different methods, like:
- snapping a rubber band against your wrist
- firmly saying, “Stop!” either out loud or in your head
- keeping track of how often you experience unwanted thoughts by making a note each time it happens
- substituting a more pleasant thought or image for the unpleasant one
- visualizing a stop sign when the thought comes up
- making noise to stop the thought, such as snapping your fingers or clapping your hands
With consistent practice, some people learn to recognize the patterns or triggers leading to unwanted thoughts, potentially preventing them before they happen. But thought-stopping doesn’t always play out in this ideal way.
Thought-stopping seems effective on paper, and people who use thought-stopping techniques regularly might seem to benefit — at least at first.
Many experts consider thought-stopping largely ineffective for a few reasons.
It can have a rebound effect
One well-known example that helps demonstrate the ineffectiveness of thought suppression comes from psychologist Daniel Wegner. He conducted an experiment by asking participants to say anything that came to mind for 5 minutes — after asking them to avoid thinking of white bears.
He found that participants did indeed think about white bears during those 5 minutes, which they indicated by ringing a bell. And that trend continued.
In the second stage of the experiment, participants were instead instructed to think about white bears. They reported more thoughts about white bears than a second group of participants who had been asked to think of white bears all along.
Wegner offered one explanation for the ineffectiveness of thought-stopping with a theory he termed ironic processes.
When you tell yourself to avoid a specific thought, part of your brain obeys. At the same time, another part of your brain monitors your thoughts to make sure the unwanted ones stay away.
The irony is that this monitoring process generally ends up making you think of exactly what you want to stop thinking about.
It doesn’t address the root cause
Unwanted thoughts and feelings have an origin point. They might relate to trauma, mental health concerns, difficult life events, or any number of other circumstances.
You might think you’re protecting yourself from pain, but thought-stopping can prevent you from working through them productively. This can just worsen emotional distress.
Let’s say you use thought-stopping to try to stop drinking. Every time you think about alcohol, you say “No!” to yourself, but your thoughts intensify until having a drink is all you can think about.
In the end, you have a drink while feeling utterly discouraged for not stopping the thought or behavior. Until you explore and address your reasons for drinking, this pattern will likely continue.
It can become a ritual
Intrusive thoughts, a common symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, can feel pretty disturbing — and it’s normal to want to stop them.
With OCD, however, the process of thought suppression can become its own type of ritual. The more you experience unwanted thoughts, the greater the compulsion to suppress them can become.
Since suppression can lead to rebound, these thoughts usually end up increasing over time.
While it’s generally not recommended, thought-stopping can have some benefit in certain situations.
For one, it may help you postpone your thoughts temporarily, at least until you can address them effectively.
Say you’re at work. You had a terrible fight with your partner the night before but couldn’t completely resolve things before going to bed. You feel miserable and scatterbrained all day. But, you have a big deadline coming up, so you need to focus on work.
“I’ll think about this after I get my work done,” you tell yourself. This helps you “turn off” thoughts of your relationship conflict so you can concentrate on your assignment.
You might already realize that dwelling on unwanted thoughts won’t help you address them. Neither will attempting to ignore or suppress them.
Here are some pointers to help you move in a more effective direction.
Most people experience anxious or intrusive thoughts from time to time.
Practicing acceptance (without judgment) can help you manage them more effectively.
Experts generally agree acceptance proves more helpful than avoidance. In fact, a specific type of therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy focuses on this very idea (more on this later).
To practice accepting unwanted thoughts, try this:
- Identify the thought. “This is an intrusive thought,” or “I don’t want to have this thought.”
- Tell yourself, “It’s just a thought.” It’s normal to experience intrusive thoughts or reminders of distressing events, but remember: These thoughts don’t have any power to harm you.
- Don’t try to avoid or stop the thought. Imagine the thought entering your consciousness and then floating away like a balloon. Instead of trying to grab it or engage with it, let it drift by undisturbed.
- Return to what you were doing. Try not to let the thought interfere with your activities. Trying to thought-stop can take a lot of energy, but acceptance can make it easier to focus on the things you need to do, even when unwanted thoughts come up.
- Keep practicing. It can take some time to get comfortable with upsetting thoughts. With time and practice, however, acceptance can make a big difference in your ability to handle them.
When unwanted thoughts relate to a specific problem, trying to make them stop can distract you from exploring helpful strategies that could resolve the issue.
Taking action to address something that’s bothering you often reduces distress. Even if your efforts don’t solve the problem immediately, knowing you’ve done your best can still relieve the intensity of the thoughts.
Maybe you keep thinking about a mistake you made at work. You’ve tried to push the thought away, but it keeps coming back. It’s Saturday, so you can’t do anything about it for the moment.
Instead, you might make a list of a few potential fixes:
- Go in early Monday to check your work.
- Email your supervisor to let them know you’re aware of the mistake and will fix it as soon as possible.
- Plan to avoid rushing through last-minute work on Friday afternoon in the future.
Having a plan of action may help you feel calmer until you can handle the problem.
Mindfulness can help you pay better attention to what happens in each moment instead of getting sidetracked by worries or intrusive thoughts.
It can also help you consider all experiences — even unwanted ones — with curiosity and an open mind. As a result, mindfulness practices could help increase acceptance of unwanted or intrusive thoughts.
It can take some time to get the hang of mindfulness, so you may not notice these benefits overnight. Deep breathing and other focused breath exercises may help in the meantime by offering both a positive distraction and a simple mindfulness exercise.
If you struggle to accept intrusive or unwanted thoughts on your own, or notice they increase in intensity no matter what you do, a mental health professional can provide additional support.
Consider seeking a therapist who offers acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), an approach designed to help people commit to the (often challenging) process of accepting unwanted thoughts.
If your unwanted thoughts relate to a past trauma, suicidal ideation, or worries about hurting yourself or someone else, it’s best to reach out for support right away. A therapist can help you address painful emotions in a safe, nonjudgmental space and teach healthy coping skills.
Therapy is also a wise move if you tend to go through certain motions or rituals to get rid of intrusive thoughts, which can be a symptom of OCD.
Your mind is a busy, complicated place. Most of the time, unwanted thoughts simply come with this territory.
Trying to stop these thoughts usually only triggers their later return — and when they rebound, you might have even more trouble getting rid of them.
Accepting these thoughts as natural may seem counterproductive, but letting them come and go as they will tends to reduce the distress they cause.