Can Thought Stopping Techniques Actually Help?


Thought-stopping means trying to stop or push away thoughts we don’t want. This cognitive behavioral technique aims to change negative thinking and focus on something positive instead.

The goal is to stop thoughts that lead to unhelpful or harmful behaviors.

At first, thought-stopping seemed helpful for things like:

People have used this technique for over 50 years, and some therapists still teach it. But now, experts say it might not work well, especially for obsessive-compulsive thoughts.

What is thought-stopping, and what are common techniques used?

Here’s how thought-stopping is supposed to work: When a thought you don’t like pops into your head, you notice it and then do something to make it go away.

You can try different things, like:

  • Snapping a rubber band on your wrist.
  • Saying “Stop!” firmly, either out loud or in your mind.
  • Keeping track of how often you have these thoughts.
  • Thinking about something nicer instead.
  • Imagining a stop sign when the thought comes up.
  • Making noise to distract yourself, like snapping your fingers or clapping your hands.

Some people get good at spotting what makes these thoughts happen and stopping them before they start. But it doesn’t always work perfectly.

Why isn’t thought stopping used in CBT today?

While the thought-stopping cognitive therapy technique may seem helpful initially for those who use it often, it usually doesn’t last. Even if it works sometimes, the unwanted thoughts or feelings usually come back. That’s why many experts don’t think thought-stopping is very useful.


Here’s a simple example that shows why trying not to think about something doesn’t work well. Psychologist Daniel Wegner did an experiment where he asked people to talk about anything for 5 minutes without mentioning white bears. Even though they tried not to think about them, they still ended up thinking about white bears a lot, as they showed by ringing a bell. And this kept happening.

Then, in the next part of the experiment, when people were told to think about white bears, they actually ended up thinking about them more than a group who had been told to think about white bears from the beginning.

Ironic Processes

Experts have a theory called “ironic processes” to explain why thought-stopping doesn’t work well. When you try to avoid a thought, one part of your brain listens and tries to push it away. But another part checks to make sure that thought doesn’t come back. Ironically, this checking often brings back the exact thought you’re trying to avoid.

Avoids the Root Cause

Unwanted thoughts and feelings come from different places, like tough experiences or mental health issues. Trying to stop these thoughts might seem like protecting yourself, but it can actually make things worse by stopping you from dealing with them in a helpful way. For example, if you try to stop thinking about drinking by saying “No!” every time the thought comes up, it might make you think about drinking even more until it’s all you can think about.

Then, when you end up drinking, you feel bad because you couldn’t stop the thought. Until you figure out why you’re drinking and deal with it, this might keep happening.

Might Become Ritualistic

Having intrusive thoughts, which are common in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), can be really upsetting, and it’s natural to want them to stop. But with OCD, trying to stop these thoughts can become like a ritual itself. The more you try to push the thoughts away, the more you might feel compelled to keep doing it. And because trying to suppress these thoughts can make them come back even stronger, they tend to get worse over time.

When can you use thought stopping techniques?

While it’s not always the best idea, sometimes thought-stopping can be useful in certain situations. For example, it might help you push aside your thoughts for a little while, at least until you’re ready to deal with them properly. Like if you had a big argument with your partner and couldn’t fix things before bed, but you have an important project due at work. You might tell yourself, “I’ll deal with this later,” so you can focus on your work without getting too distracted by the fight.

Alternatives to Try Instead of Thought-Stopping

You might know that constantly thinking about unwanted thoughts won’t fix them. Trying to ignore or push them away won’t work either. Here are some tips to help you deal with them better.


Many people have anxious or intrusive thoughts now and then. Accepting these thoughts without judging them can help you deal with them better. Experts agree that accepting thoughts is more useful than avoiding them. Acceptance and commitment therapy focuses on this.

To practice accepting unwanted thoughts:

  • Recognize the thought and acknowledge it.
  • Remind yourself that it’s just a thought and can’t harm you.
  • Don’t try to push the thought away, let it pass like a balloon drifting away.
  • Focus on what you were doing before the thought came up.
  • Keep practicing acceptance. It might take time, but it can help you handle upsetting thoughts better.

Solving the Problem

When you can’t stop thinking about a problem, trying to force the thoughts away might not help. Taking action can often ease your mind, even if you can’t fix the issue right away.

For example, if you keep dwelling on a mistake at work, make a plan:

  • Decide to check your work early next week.
  • Email your supervisor to acknowledge the mistake.
  • Plan to avoid last-minute rushes in the future.

Having a plan can make you feel better until you can deal with the problem.

Mindful Practices

Practicing meditation and mindfulness can improve your ability to stay focused on the present moment. Mindfulness helps you pay attention to what’s happening now, without getting caught up in worries.

It also encourages you to approach all experiences, even unwanted ones, with curiosity and openness, which can help you accept intrusive thoughts. Learning mindfulness takes time, but you can try deep breathing exercises in the meantime for a positive distraction and a simple way to practice mindfulness.

When to seek help

If you’re finding it hard to accept intrusive thoughts or they’re getting worse, it’s okay to ask for help. Consider talking to a therapist who knows about acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). This therapy helps people accept unwanted thoughts. If your thoughts are about past trauma, feeling suicidal, or hurting yourself or others, it’s important to reach out for help right away.

A therapist can support you in a safe space and teach you how to cope. Therapy is also helpful if you find yourself doing certain actions over and over to get rid of intrusive thoughts, which might be a sign of OCD.

Utilize Proper Techniques to Manage Unwanted Thoughts

If you’re struggling with unwanted thoughts, know that you’re not alone. Instead of trying to stop them, consider accepting them without judgment. Seek support from a therapist if needed. Remember, it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.


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