Thought Stopping:
It Makes Worry Worse

by Dave Carbonell, PhD

If you're bothered by worry, you might have heard about "thought stopping", and hoped it would help you clear your mind of these unwelcome thoughts.

It probably hasn't. That's not your fault. Opposing your worry in this manner doesn't really work very well for most people. In fact, it often makes the problem worse.

The Problem with Thought Stopping

Take a look around you and select a small item in your area. Pick up a cup, an ashtray, a book, a framed photograph, a salt shaker, or something similarly portable.

Put it someplace else in your home. Remove it from the room you occupy, and come back here.

You were able to do that, right?

Think of the object you removed. Picture what it looks like, what it's used for, its color and shape, the materials it's made of, and so on.

Now do some thought stopping. Remove all thoughts of that object from your mind. Don't think of it for three minutes. Say "stop" to yourself if you like, each time you think of that object. Snap a rubber band on your wrist each time you think of the object, as the classic instructions would have you do.

Not so easy, right? And usually very unsuccessful. But this, unfortunately, is what people who struggle with worry and anxiety often do. Even worse, they're often advised to do this!

Don't treat Thoughts like Objects

It's pretty easy to get rid of an object, especially a small one. You remove it from the room, put it somewhere else, and it stays there. Unless it's alive, it won't come back.

But thoughts don't respond like objects. Thoughts respond more like an oppositional two year old. The harder you try to remove a thought from your mind, the more persistently it returns to your attention.

Thought stopping is an example of treating thoughts like objects. It generally doesn't work. It's like tossing a boomerang in an effort to be rid of it. That just makes it come back.

Treat Worry like a Heckler,
not a Mugger

If I face someone trying to hurt me, a mugger or some kind of assailant, I have to try to protect myself, probably by fighting, running away, or shouting for help.

But if I'm giving a lecture somewhere and there's a heckler in the audience, those things won't help. If I get into a fight or an argument with the heckler, I'm just playing the heckler's game, and it will take me away from the purpose of my lecture.

I'd be a lot better off accepting the fact that I had a heckler in the audience, and doing the things that are likely to help the situation. That would probably mean finding ways to work the heckler into my presentation, making some humorous points about the disruption, deliberately calling on the heckler with questions, and so on.

Worry and other forms of unwanted thoughts are like a heckler, rather than a mugger. You'll be better off working with them than against them.

Better Ways to Respond to Worry

Here are a few responses to excessive worry which my patients have found to be helpful.

"I remind myself that I'm prone to worry about future events, that I have a great imagination but no crystal ball, and that there's no need to take the thought seriously."

"I tell myself 'that's just the way I am. I have the worry habit'."

"I write myself a reminder to worry about this subject later, and get involved in some activity, like work or exercise. I rarely come back to it later, because I lose interest."

You can also use worry appointments, which I find to be a powerful alternative to struggling against your worries.

But don't even think of thought stopping!

Looking for more help
with chronic worry?

Dr. Carbonell's new book, The Worry Trick, can help guide you to a life less concerned with worry.

Here's another site with helpful tips about worry.

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© 2010-2024 David Carbonell, PhD.  Anxiety Coach® is a registered mark.
P.O. Box 256539, Chicago, IL 60625

Last updated on April 8, 2024