Thought stopping is the process allowing an individual to cut out a thought that is bothersome - or break the power of thoughts leading to addictive or binge-like behavior.
Thought stopping is a 50 year old technique widely used in cognitive behavioral therapy. By practicing using mental energy in a positive way, thought stopping becomes a stress reduction technique that eliminates the overwhelming impact of stress or emotional cues that lead to unhealthy behavior.
How Does Thought Stopping Work?
Thought stopping techniques allow an individual to replace one thought for another, break an unhealthy thought pattern with a positive one, replace a negative image with a positive visual image, or detour the mind from unhealthy or negative thoughts.
Thought Stopping Techniques
Step 1: Acknowledge
First, it’s important to quickly become aware of the unhealthy thought. Recognize it. Now, instead of trying to ignore it, there are some healthy things to do at the moment to acknowledge the urge demanding your attention.
Step 2: Stop & Counteract
Tell yourself “STOP” and do it immediately. You might say “STOP!” out loud, or to be subtle, wear a rubber band on your wrist and snap it when you catch yourself thinking unwanted thoughts.
Next, work to replace the unhealthy thought with a more empowering one that contradicts it.
To accomplish this, visualize a special place, embrace an accurate logical thought about the situation, or engage in a task that requires concentration and focus.
For example, if the unhealthy thought is, “I need alcohol to help me get through today,” the replacement thought can be, “I don’t need alcohol to numb the pain. Life is better when I’m sober. If I keep this up, I will continue to reach my goals.”
Yelling “STOP”: When an unwanted thought enters, immediately yell “STOP”. The yell can be out loud or silent in your mind. Continue to yell “STOP” until the unwanted thought leaves.
Replacement Visual Image: If you tend to visualize negative images, replace these negative images by positive, healthy ones.
Thought Replacement: When an unwanted thought enters, immediately replace the thought with a healthy, rational one.
Substituting a Healthy Thought Pattern: If you tend to think irrationally, you can develop a rational pattern of thinking by challenging every thought that comes to mind, asking: Is this a rational thought? If not, what is irrational about it? What would be a rational replacement for this thought?
Aversive Replacements: If you tend to think of an unhealthy behavior in an acceptable manner, immediately replace these acceptable images with more honest images, for example, thoughts of junk foods can be replaced by the words ‘poison’, ‘unhealthy,’ ‘disgusting,' or ‘barf’. Thoughts of cigarettes can be replaced by ‘cancer sticks’ or ‘coffin nails’.
Step 3: Repeat
Repeat these thought stopping techniques as many times a day as necessary. It might work to end the thought after one or two attempts. For more ingrained urges that continue to resurface throughout the day, you may need to repeat it more than 30 times. However many times it takes, remember to keep your focus on the end goal.
Real Life Application
J is at a lunch hangout she hasn’t visited since sober. Other friends order drinks and J is thinking “the mixed drinks are great here”. J recognizes these unhealthy thoughts and yells “STOP!” silently to herself while closing her eyes and picturing a stop sign. J replaces the thoughts with “My sobriety is important. I don’t need any poison today.” To focus on something else she asks her friend to tell her about a recent trip.
Don’t Let Your Negative Inner Voice Interfere with Thought Stopping
For thought stopping to be an effective coping skill, one needs to have confidence the process will work. Don’t let your inner voice use excuses like these:
It's OK if I just think about it and do nothing.
What difference does it make if I think about it?
People will never know if I think on it for a little while.
I've denied myself so much, why can't I just think about it?
I never thought about this before I acted, so why should I avoid thinking about it now?
It is too much of a battle to fight these thoughts. It's easier to give in and then start over again in the morning.
It seems so silly to control my mind from having thoughts about it.
I don't have time to do this.
I don't need this in order to be successful in achieving recovery.
With practice, thought stopping can become a part of daily life. By consistently replacing unhealthy thoughts with healthy thoughts, the new healthy thoughts become more automatic. Thought stopping can be an effective tool during particularly stressful periods of life, such as the holidays, when there may be more frequent triggers for negative thoughts or relapse into addictive behaviors.
Need additional help? If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction and want to learn more about treatment options, feel free to contact us at: 630-402-0144