STOP! Shhh! Not now! Go away! Although not always polite, these are things we occasionally say to others if we need – or simply want – them to stop saying something. But what do we do with the things we say to ourselves each day? Using a similar approach with the thoughts inside our heads – those that are intrusive, mean, or stressful – can help with staying present and challenging distortions as they come.
This technique is called “Thought Stopping,” also known as the “Stop Thoughts” approach. The goal of Thought Stopping isn’t to suppress your thoughts; instead, the goal is one of two things:
1) To temporarily push aside distressing thoughts to stay mindful of the present moment OR
2) To reframe the thought and incorporate positive self-talk or challenge potentially distorted thinking.
It can be incredibly difficult to focus on the task at hand when your mind begins to race with stressful thoughts. Though distressing, these thoughts may not always be distorted. You may be overwhelmed and distracted by a thought that accurately reflects reality … but isn’t something you like thinking about. For example, it can be difficult to focus on a phone call at work when your mind is spinning stressing about all the errands you have to run when you leave. With all the changes treatment brings about, daily activities can feel impossible at times – how can you focus on a math test when you just had a meal plan increase during your nutrition appointment? Knowing a family therapy session is scheduled for tomorrow may get in the way of an important conversation with a boss or teacher. In these situations, it can be helpful to interrupt the repetition of the thought by pushing it away temporarily – while giving yourself permission to come back to this thought later when you can problem solve and work toward acceptance. For example, firmly stating (silently – or out loud if you want!), “STOP! I will call my friend after class to vent about my stress. Right now, I need to focus on my test” can help by commanding your brain to shift the focus of your thoughts. Easier said than done? Maybe, but, as we know, practice makes better.
When the distressing thought is more of a distortion – or an irrational thought that is often negative (i.e. “I’m never going to recover,” “No one cares about me”), it can be helpful to interrupt the thought, and consider an alternate way of looking at the situation. For example, you may interrupt this thought with “STOP! Even though I am struggling right now, I have still made progress in many ways.” Reframing this negative thought to something more positive (and more accurate!) helps teach the mind to recognize the strengths in each situation. Again, practice makes better. Just the same as we internalize and believe all the negative messages we hear daily, we can begin to believe and recognize the positive, as well.
- – Take some time to think about
- you’ve had this distressing thought. This can help make sense of why the thought won’t just go away on its own, and can help you gain insight into its origins
– Get creative with the “command” statement! It doesn’t have to be “STOP!” Some people shake their head, whistle, or use a word related to the associated thought. There is no right or wrong – just remember to be kind to yourself
– Repeat the STOP sequence every time you have the thought. And don’t forget the “command” statement (i.e: STOP! Shhh!) – think of this as something sudden to interrupt the thought quickly. Just like splashing cold water on your face or hearing a loud noise can be shocking, so can commanding your brain to take a second to regroup.
Be creative, patient, and easy on yourself – good luck!
Sources: Bakker, G.M. (2009). In defence of thought stopping. Clinical Psychologist, 13(2), pp. 59-68.
Erika Vargas, LMHC, is a clinician in the Adolescent Intensive Outpatient & Partial Hospitalization Programs at the WBC Braintree location. She is trained in the Maudsley Method/Family Based-Treatment and works with adolescents to decrease eating disorder behaviors with the support of their families.