If you’ve ever had re-occurring or intrusive thoughts, you may have wished there were a way you could just erase them forever, or at least take a break from them. Thought stopping is a tool sometimes used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other therapeutic approaches.
Thought stopping gained popularity in the 1980s, but its effectiveness in those early forms has since been questioned. Some research finds that intentionally suppressing obsessive or unwanted thoughts can create a rebound effect where the thought occurs more often. However, in more recent times, certain forms of “thought stopping” have been recognized as a useful skill for coping with stress or managing intrusive thoughts that can feel overwhelming during addiction recovery, such as:
- Memories of using drugs or alcohol
- Fantasizing about using alcohol or drugs
- Anxious or depressive thoughts
- Memories of past trauma
Here are some thought-stopping techniques that can be helpful relapse prevention tools in addiction recovery. These techniques may not be appropriate for people with conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, or panic attacks. You should always work with a behavioral health professional to find what coping techniques and approaches are best for your situation.
#1 Acknowledge Intrusive Thoughts
Recognizing negative thought patterns can help you begin to change how you handle them. You can’t “stop” thinking. The brain is thinking all of the time, so getting rid of thoughts isn’t possible. But sometimes just acknowledging a thought can give it less power. Try viewing your thoughts like a young child showing off a new skill who keeps saying, “Look at me! Watch this!” They will keep saying it over and over again until they know you’ve seen them and have acknowledged them.
Sometimes, thoughts work in the same way. It’s like they’re raising their hands saying, “Hey, over here! I have something important to say!” Try acknowledging the thought without judging it. Just notice that it’s there and move on without trying to suppress it. You can even try talking to the thought. Say something like, “I hear this thought. It’s okay to have this thought. I can choose how much attention I give this thought right now.” This serves as a reminder that you are in control, not the thought.
#2 Challenge Negative Thinking
Proven approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy help you stop negative thought patterns by identifying unhealthy ones and challenging their accuracy. This is known as cognitive restructuring. For example, say you’re having the thought, “I am a failure, and I will never be able to stay sober.” In CBT, you learn to question the validity of this thought and belief. Your therapist may ask you to recall times in your life when you accomplished something, even if you think it’s very small. They may ask you to give credence to the fact that you’ve been able to refrain from drugs or alcohol use for certain periods of time. They’ll encourage you to consider what real proof you have that you are a failure and that you will never be able to stay sober. You’ll learn to pick apart those justifications to see how much truth they actually hold.
#3 Replace Intrusive Thoughts
Another negative thought-stopping technique in CBT involves replacing ruminations with more accurate and positive ones. For instance, in the example, “I’m a failure, and I will never be able to stay sober,” once you’ve identified and challenged this belief, your therapist may ask you to think of alternative thoughts. This might include thoughts around specific, successful experiences, and any periods of sobriety in your life.
#4 Use Mindfulness Techniques
Mindfulness is a research-based approach found helpful in:
- Decreasing repetitive, maladaptive thoughts
- Preventing addiction relapse
- Stress management
- Managing depression symptoms
- Improving fear and stress responses to PTSD
- Easing general anxiety and social anxiety
- Handling anger management issues
Practices of mindfulness come in many forms including meditation, yoga, sensory experiences, and relaxation and deep breathing techniques. Mindfulness can help stop unwanted thoughts by bringing your focus back to the present moment. Paying attention to your senses can help ground you. For example, when your brain starts spinning on a hamster wheel of ruminations, you can create space by noticing your sensory experience right at that moment. Name out loud or in your mind:
- Five things you can see
- Five different sounds you hear
- Five things you can feel (ex. The fabric of your clothes, the chair you’re sitting on, etc.)
- Any scents
After that, close your eyes and do a body scan with muscle isolation. Move from one muscle group to the next, from your toes up to your head. Notice and release any tension.
Another approach to this exercise is when you catch yourself having unwanted thoughts, shift your mind into a positive memory. Maybe it’s a memory of a relaxing vacation or a happy memory with your loved ones. Use all five senses to tell yourself the whole story. What did this memory sound like, feel like, smell like, taste like, and look like?
Journaling can have several mental health benefits and is often taught as a coping skill in addiction treatment programs. Some research shows that certain types of journaling can reduce symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and other conditions that may fuel drug and alcohol abuse.
Journaling helps reduce distressing thoughts in a couple of ways. Writing down your ruminations on paper can be a cathartic experience. It can lessen the hold they have on you, as your mind feels like it’s “gotten them out.” Writing down unwanted thoughts is also an opportunity to note any evidence that supports the thought; evidence that contradicts the thought; and identify a more balanced thought. This is why journaling assignments are often part of cognitive behavioral therapy.
#6 Set a Time Limit For Negative Thoughts
In the same vein as acknowledging thoughts and giving them attention so they’ll feel noticed and move on, some people set aside time every day for negative thoughts. Give yourself a designated amount of time each day, or as needed, to devote to negative thoughts. Sit down and intentionally think about the distressing thought. Let your mind ruminate as much as it wants. You can journal or just focus on your thoughts. Put on a timer for a set amount of time, and when the timer goes off, shift your attention to an enjoyable activity, positive memory, or mindfulness practice.
#7 Use a Thought-Stopping Cue
Some people have success with a word or action meant to stop intrusive thoughts. This might mean saying in your head or out loud, “STOP!” when you catch yourself thinking about drugs and alcohol or other triggering thoughts. Some people also imagine a stop sign.
Another popular thought-stopping technique is to wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap it when the thought enters your mind. You could also clap your hands or snap your fingers. These can serve as cues that it’s time to refocus your attention on a positive thought or activity.
Thought-stopping cues like these have been criticized by some for having potential to encourage the rebound effect of suppressing thoughts, but you can try out different methods and see what works for you.
Remember, Thoughts Are Just Thoughts
Remind yourself, thoughts are not reality. Intrusive thoughts can dominate your mind, but only if you allow them. You are in control, and there are ways you can manage unhealthy thinking.
If intrusive thoughts are threatening your recovery, reach out for help. At Footprints to Recovery, we teach you how to manage intrusive thoughts and other triggers with a toolbox full of healthy coping skills. We offer inpatient and outpatient programs, and tailor treatment to your individualized needs. Contact us here.