Use ‘Thought Stopping’ Techniques to Shield Yourself From a Spiral of Negative Thinking

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When you find yourself in a whirlpool of negative thinking, it can be tough to stop the situation from becoming a total downward spiral. You're at risk of drowning in it, and pulling yourself out can be a serious challenge. That's exactly why thought stopping techniques are so helpful. They can serve as a life raft of sorts to keep you from becoming totally submerged.

"Thought stopping is a traditional cognitive-behavioral technique that is designed to replace a negative or unwanted thought with a more positive or neutral thought," says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy from Fear. "This intervention is a core component of treatments targeted to reduce or eliminate obsessive or problematic recurring thoughts. Overall, it is a highly effective technique that is commonly used across many types of psychotherapy."

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Introduced by psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe in the 1950s, the goal of thought stopping was primarily to treat obsessive and phobic thoughts. One version of thought stopping has the patient wear a rubber band on their wrist, and snap the band whenever these thoughts start to spiral. Now, though, there's no need to use the technique in a negatively enforcing way that's essentially self-bullying behavior.  Rather, it's entirely possible to use thought stopping to improve mental health positively and with self-love.

How to practice thought stopping with kindness

"Thought stopping can be a wonderful technique to reduce negative thinking, yet important research shows that thought stopping without a replacement positive thought can increase certain negative thoughts," Dr. Manly says. Likewise, she believes the secret to controlling our emotions isn't about suppressing, ignoring, or avoiding them. We want to basically thought notice when we're thought stopping. Here's an easy outline of how to use thought stopping to a positive effect in three steps.

1. Stop the thought: Do this by envisioning a stop sign, saying "stop" to yourself, or doing anything that gives you the pause that you need.

2. Simply acknowledge and recognize the thought: Listen to the emotion or feeling behind it. Don't ignore it, but don't keep it company for too long.

3. Replace it with a positive thought: Whatever positive thought you want! This can be your favorite Lizzo lyric, a compliment you can give yourself, a self-esteem affirmation, a mantra, or even just envisioning whatever your space is. That's it.

Coming at thought stopping from this positive-leaning angle distracts the brain without suppressing your negative thoughts but also stopping them from resurfacing later, Dr. Manly says. So what does that look like in practice? Well, here's a personal example: I caught a debilitating cold after the holidays and had to cancel most of my plans as a result. But essentially quarantining myself lead anxious feelings of FOMO to bubble up. So, I imagined a stop sign in the view of my negative thinking and then acknowledged that my thought was originating from FOMO. Then I replaced it with a positive thought: "Whatever, you can now finally catch up on Squid Games."

So the next time you notice yourself going down the negativity spiral, take a positivity pit stop with whatever thought stopping techniques you see fit. Just no rubber bands, please.

Looking to amp up your self-love game? We break down how to master the art of mirror work. Or if you need to fake it before you make it, this is how to convey confidence in your body language.

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