18 Effective Thought-Stopping Techniques (& 10 PDFs)

Thought stopping techniquesFrom time to time, we all experience intrusive, unwanted thoughts in our stream of consciousness (Shackelford & Zeigler-Hill, 2020).

While many are frivolous, such as what we are planning for dinner tonight, others are disturbing, distressing, or upsetting.

“Thought stopping” is a commonly taught approach for helping prevent recurring negative thoughts or interrupt them before they spiral out of control (Hardy & Oliver, 2014).

In this article, we review therapeutic perspectives along with several powerful thought-stopping techniques for managing repetitive thoughts and blocking ones that are harmful.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will provide you with detailed insight into positive Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and give you the tools to apply it in your therapy or coaching.

How Negative Thoughts Affect Wellbeing

Negative thoughts are common among individuals experiencing depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. They also play a role in maintaining such conditions and negatively impact mental and physical wellbeing (Sburlati, 2014).

Özbiler et al. (2023) recognized that negative thoughts are an important factor in subjective wellbeing and may be further influenced by social factors, such as relationships with parents.

Repetitive negative thoughts are “found in depression, anxiety, guilt, resentment, shame, and other types of distress” and can have many sources, including (Clark, 2020, p. 8):

  • Ruminating over unmet goals
  • Past shame or embarrassment
  • Thinking back to unfair criticism
  • Feelings of guilt, fear, and anger

The impact of repetitive negative thinking is far and wide. A recent meta-review of the research identified that “frequent thoughts that evoke negative effect” can cause or exacerbate the following (Mason et al., 2024, p. 2):

  • Anger rumination – repetitively turning over events that made the individual angry
  • Anxious rumination – continually revisiting anxiety-provoking events from the past
  • Brooding – focusing on the negative consequences of past experiences
  • Catastrophizing – an extreme focus on worst-case scenarios
  • Interpersonal rumination – repetitive thinking about adverse social interactions
  • Sadness rumination – dwelling on causes of one’s experience of sadness
  • Self-critical rumination – being overly focused on a negative view of the self, including failures, mistakes, perceived inadequacy, and bad habits

Over time, such repetitive negative thoughts contribute to ongoing distress, anxiety, depression, poor self-image, and conditions such as borderline personality disorder, putting the individual at risk of maladaptive behavior and even suicide (Mason et al., 2024).

Can negative thinking be changed?

Helping manage and reduce negative thinking offers an opportunity for behavior change and can improve individual wellbeing. Common thought-stopping techniques within Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and beyond include (Sburlati, 2014):

  • Thought diaries
    When clients (especially children) struggle to identify what is going through their minds at different points in their lives, recording and reviewing their experiences can help.
  • Thought challenging
    Individuals benefit from standing back from what they are feeling and realizing that these are thoughts rather than facts or reality.
  • Behavioral experiments
    Therapists and clients work together to formulate experiential activities that test the validity of upsetting beliefs.
  • Positive imagery
    Deliberately recalling happy events and images has a powerful, positive impact on our mood.
  • Self-talk
    It focuses on changing the internal dialogue we have with ourselves “and is premised on the belief that behavior follows directly from this self-talk” (Sburlati, 2014, p. 223).

Thought stopping prevents unwanted and unpleasant thoughts from taking hold in the client’s mind. The individual can learn to think of another more positive subject, engage in a pleasant activity, share their feelings, or analyze and reinterpret the thought (Shackelford & Zeigler-Hill, 2020).

Here is a fascinating video by Dawn-Elise Snipes on thought stopping.

3 Strategies for thought stopping - Doc Snipes

Therapeutic Perspectives on Thought Stopping

Thought stopping, sometimes referred to as thought suppression or thought blocking, is based on cognitive techniques developed in the late 1950s (Hardy & Oliver, 2014).

While common with sports psychologists, attempting to “eliminate athletes’ recurring negative, self-defeating or anxiety-related thoughts” (Hardy & Oliver, 2014, p. 750), it is widely used elsewhere in coaching and counseling (Shackelford & Zeigler-Hill, 2020).

However, negative thoughts do not always harm performance and can even be motivating, depending greatly on how we interpret them (Hardy & Oliver, 2014).

For many, negative thoughts can be a source of considerable distress and damage their wellbeing. For that reason, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, along with the larger family of CBT to which it belongs, attempts to suppress, dispute, or rationalize such thoughts (Dobson & Dozois, 2021; Hardy & Oliver, 2014).

Albert Ellis, considered by many to be the grandfather of CBT, “considered disputing to be the most typical and often-used method of his rational emotive behavior therapy” (Nelson-Jones, 2014, p. 265).

Technically, such “disputing” might be considered challenging rather than stopping thoughts, yet it prevents such negative thoughts from taking hold and overwhelming the individual (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

Overcoming clients’ feeling of being stuck when thought stopping

Mindfulness and acceptance interventions have also been integrated into CBT to intervene when clients find it difficult to change or stop unhelpful thoughts (Dobson & Dozois, 2021).

“Mindfulness and acceptance-oriented activities may also be considered stimulus control strategies,” as they create a new meaning of the situation (Dobson & Dozois, 2021, p. 273).

Similarly, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy encourages clients to foster a different relationship with feelings and thoughts relating to anxiety and fear (Forsyth & Eifert, 2016).

Is this still thought stopping?

Mindfulness and acceptance serve as gentler alternatives to directly suppressing negative thoughts, stopping them from gaining traction (Forsyth & Eifert, 2016).

They offer a pathway to observe and sit with our mental experiences without judgment. Through such interventions, individuals learn to detach from their thoughts’ content and reduce their impact; they create space for a more compassionate and accepting approach to mental wellness.

Download 3 Free Positive CBT Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will equip you or your clients with tools to find new pathways to reduce suffering and more effectively cope with life stressors.

Proactive Management of Repetitive Thoughts

Negative thoughts can become the norm and habitual without taking action, occurring throughout the day and at specific times and events.

“Thought stopping is premised on recognizing the occurrence of negative or unhelpful thoughts, and then breaking the cycle of negative thinking” (Sburlati, 2014, p. 226).

This commonly applied proactive CBT-based approach to managing and breaking the cycle of repetitive negative thoughts often includes the following steps (Sburlati, 2014):

  1. Awareness
    Catch the negative thought early by practicing improved awareness.
  2. Interruption
    Interrupt the thought by saying “stop.” Saying it out loud adds an auditory cue that signifies it is time to halt the thought process.
  3. Physical cue
    Reinforce the verbal interruption by adding a physical action (perhaps banging a hand on the table) or gripping an object (such as the back of the chair). A tactile stimulus helps anchor the mind in the present.
  4. Cognitive replacement
    Having interrupted the thought, try replacing it with a more positive and balanced one. Say it out loud if possible.

While saying “stop,” adding a mildly aversive experience, such as slapping an elastic band against the wrist, can be helpful.

Stopping unwanted repetitive thoughts involves more than simply a mental interruption; it requires a cognitive intervention that involves deliberate, active engagement and practice to encourage it to become habitual. In doing so, it is possible to halt the spiral of repeating negative and unproductive thoughts that, if left unchecked, can become embedded into our daily routines (Sburlati, 2014).

4 Techniques to Help Clients With Thought Blocking

Thought blocking techniqueWe don’t have to live with continually recurring negative thoughts; there are several thought-stopping techniques that combine to help us stop or block them (Clark, 2020).

1. Identify negative thoughts

Such thoughts are typically repetitive and focus on dark possibilities and their immediate negative consequences. They are intrusive and difficult to shift.

Ask the client to:

  • Write down a list of three negative life experiences you often think about.
  • Capture the negative thoughts associated with each one.

For example, a recent breakup with a significant other led to feelings like, “It’s all my fault. I’m unlovable. I’ll end up alone.”

2. Know the triggers

Typically, recurring negative thoughts don’t just appear; they are triggered. Knowing when this happens allows the client to avoid the situation or prepare themselves for the thought that follows.

Encourage the client to:

  • Think back to times when you experienced strong negative thoughts.
  • Capture any triggers, including comments, memories, situations, and related thoughts and beliefs.

For example, “At a recent family gathering, someone asked how my career was going and compared me to other family members. I’m not as successful as my cousins. I’m sure my family is disappointed in me.”

  • Write down any patterns you notice. When do you react more strongly? What are you most sensitive about? Are there other related intrusive, unwanted thoughts?

Improving our degree of mental control helps us direct our attention and concentration to the task we are performing rather than becoming distracted and upset by unwanted, often negative, thoughts (Clark, 2020).

3. Direct attention and maintain focus

Clinical psychologist, researcher, and therapist David Clark (2020) suggests using thought retention and thought dismissal.

Thought retention:

Close your eyes and keep your mind focused as hard as possible on a white bear.

As other thoughts enter your mind, mark them as a tally on a blank sheet of paper before gently returning your attention to the bear.

After two minutes, stop and check your tally.

Thought dismissal:

Again, close your eyes, but this time, try as much as you can to keep thoughts of a white bear out of your mind.

If the thought of a white bear enters your mind, mark it as a tally on a blank sheet of paper before gently returning your attention to other thoughts.

After two minutes, stop and check your tally.

Ask the client to compare the two experiences. They most likely found it much more challenging to block the bear. However, with practice, they will become better at focusing on the positives, and this will help them block or ignore intrusive thoughts, particularly negative ones (Clark, 2020).

4. Recognize effective versus ineffective strategies for thought blocking

It is vital to identify and remember to use the most effective mental controls for blocking unwanted thoughts.

Ask the client:

Review the list of strategies below that people often see as ineffective at stopping thoughts:

  • Trying to reason with yourself
  • Criticizing yourself for thinking this way
  • Telling yourself to stop thinking this way
  • Trying to reassure yourself that everything will be fine
  • Performing a compulsive ritual

Add some of your own and consider which ones you disagree with.

Here’s another list, this time including strategies individuals often find to be effective at thought blocking:

  • Replacing a negative thought with a positive one
  • Engaging in an activity to distract yourself
  • Accepting the thought; letting it float through your mind without engaging in it
  • Trying to view the negative thought in a more positive, helpful manner
  • Trying to relax, meditate, or breathe slowly

Add ones of your own.

Encourage the client to review both lists to see which ones they agree with (or would challenge) and make a note of ones that would be personally helpful to them and when they could use them.

5 Thought-Stopping Techniques for Anxiety and Other Modalities

We have plenty of thought-stopping tools based on techniques for helping clients with anxious, fearful, and panicked thoughts that surface in their lives.

While some of them involve the “mental process of consciously attempting to avoid thinking about a particular thought” (Shackelford & Zeigler-Hill, 2020, p. 5499), others work by stopping the thought from overwhelming the individual (Forsyth & Eifert, 2016).

  • STOP the Panic
    The STOP acronym (slower breath, thoughts and feelings, open up, and personal values) helps clients manage and take control of their emotions while finding calm.
  • Reverse the Rabbit Hole
    The client captures potential worries and comes up with plausible positive outcomes to prevent a downward spiral of anxiety and other fearful thoughts.
  • Event Visualization
    Picturing an event before it happens can prevent difficult thoughts from arising and avoid the panic of not feeling in control.
  • Tackling Anxious Thoughts
    Regularly practicing noticing anxious and irrational thoughts helps prevent anxiety from taking hold.
  • Understanding Your Anxiety and Triggers
    Identify the triggers that lead to feelings of anxiety to be ready with an appropriate stopping strategy.

Helpful Worksheets and Activities

Thought blocking worksheMental control strategies can be challenging to master, yet with practice, they can be powerful tools for stopping thoughts from taking over how we think and feel (Sburlati, 2014).

  • Dysfunctional Thought Record
    Individuals who struggle with negative thoughts may benefit from figuring out when and why they pop up.
  • Negative Thoughts Checklist
    Taking time to identify negative repetitive thoughts can help us determine how they influence our mood.
  • Control–Influence–Accept Model
    When experiencing feelings and thoughts associated with hopelessness and being overwhelmed, it can be helpful to reflect on what can be controlled.
  • Stop Right Now
    When faced with an impulse to react, clients are encouraged to ask themselves, “What am I feeling at this moment?” and “What am I telling myself?”
  • STOP – Distress Tolerance
    Clients can develop the skills to handle strong emotions and tolerate painful events using another STOP acronym (stop, don’t just react; take a step back; observe; and proceed mindfully).

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

We have many resources available for therapists to prevent difficult, unwanted, or unhealthy thoughts from taking over.

Along with the free resources we have already shared, more extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©.

They are described briefly below:

  • The Most Helpful Thoughts
    Excessive unhelpful thinking can cause us to misinterpret everyday situations and behave in ways that exacerbate existing problems.

    • Step one – Consider an unhelpful thought, when it happened, what thoughts were present, and how it made you feel.
    • Step two – Analyze the unhelpful thought. Why was this line of thinking not helpful in this situation?
    • Step three – Think about a new, more constructive thought and how it could change your emotional response to the situation.
    • Step four – Reflect on the new, more helpful thought and how it alters your perception of the situation.
  • Don’t Think About Your Thoughts
    It can be valuable for clients to learn the challenges surrounding suppressing negative thoughts and the potential for rebound effects.

    • Step one – Choose a negative thought that often bothers you.
    • Step two – Spend a few minutes (three to five minutes) trying not to think about it.
    • Step three – Note how often the thought came to mind while trying to avoid it.
    • Step four – Spend another few minutes (three to five minutes) allowing your mind to wander freely without trying to control your thoughts.
    • Step five – Observe whether the negative thought occurred less or more often when you allowed your mind to think freely compared to when you tried to suppress it.

Discussion: Reflect on the experience. Was it easier or harder to avoid the negative thought when you were actively trying to suppress it? Did the thought become less intense or more consuming during suppression?

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others through CBT, check out this collection of 17 validated positive CBT tools for practitioners. Use them to help others overcome unhelpful thoughts and feelings and develop more positive behaviors.

A Take-Home Message

Intrusive thoughts are inevitable. While some are benign, others are upsetting, causing distress or wrecking confidence (Shackelford & Zeigler-Hill, 2020).

Such thoughts can be damaging and are particularly common in individuals with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Traditional thought-stopping techniques suppress or block such unwanted mental interruptions, while more recent approaches offer ways to manage them and prevent them from taking over our thinking (Sburlati, 2014; Shackelford & Zeigler-Hill, 2020).

Originally based on CBT techniques, thought stopping also involves mindfulness and acceptance approaches when clients become stuck, unable to prevent them or move forward. They stop the thought by showing self-kindness and acceptance rather than putting up barriers.

Whatever the approach, thought stopping involves awareness. To be ready to stop the thought, the individual must learn the triggers and situations when such negative thinking occurs.

Why not try the thought-stopping techniques, tools, and exercises shared in the article with clients and see how they help avoid, arrest, or sidestep unwanted and damaging thoughts?

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. For more information, don’t forget to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free.

  • Clark, D. A. (2020). The negative thoughts workbook: CBT skills to overcome the repetitive worry, shame, and rumination that drive anxiety and depression. New Harbinger.
  • Dobson, K. S., & Dozois, D. J. (2021). Handbook of cognitive-behavioral therapies. Guilford Press.
  • Forsyth, J. P., & Eifert, G. H. (2016). The mindfulness & acceptance workbook for anxiety: A guide to breaking free from anxiety, phobias & worry using acceptance & commitment therapy. New Harbinger.
  • Hardy, J., & Oliver, E. J. (2014). Self-talk, positive thinking, and thought stopping. In R. C. Eklund & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Encyclopedia of sport and exercise psychology. Sage.
  • Mason, C. K., Kelley, K., & DeShong, H. L. (2024). Repetitive negative thoughts and thought control strategies within borderline personality disorder: A systematic review. Journal of Affective Disorders Reports, 15.
  • Nelson-Jones, R. (2014). Practical counselling and helping skills. Sage.
  • Özbiler, Ş., Taner, M., & Francis, M. (2023). New paths for parental warmth and subjective wellbeing: The mediator roles of automatic negative thoughts. Psychological Reports: OnlineFirst. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/00332941231159606
  • Sburlati, E. S. (2014). Evidence-based CBT for anxiety and depression in children and adolescents: A competencies-based approach. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Shackelford, T. K., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2020). Encyclopedia of personality and individual differences. Springer.
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  1. PATRICIA LEACH

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