So far we’ve discussed some eye-opening facts about automatic negative thoughts and learned how they can twist our perception; we’ve also learned about the characteristics of automatic negative thoughts so that we can easily identify them. It is now time to put into practice some techniques to help us stop these negative thoughts dead on their tracks.
Today I will be talking about a skill I learned from the book “Thoughts and Feelings – Taking Control of Your moods and your life” which the authors call “Thought-Stopping.” So put on your boxing gloves and prepare to give those negative thoughts a knock-out punch!
Thought stopping involves focusing our attention on the unwanted negative thoughts for a short period of time, then interrupting the train of thought abruptly by vocalizing the command “Stop!” or making a physical move to act as an “interruptor.” It’s a very similar approach to the one used by Pavlov when conditioning his dogs to salivate upon hearing the ringing of a bell.
I used this method successfully whenever my mind was preoccupied with thoughts of excessive worry. For instance, I used to stress excessively about our financial situation and whether we were going to make it to my next paycheck. This caused me to be in a high level of stress and anxiety for most of my waking hours, and any sign of an unforeseen expense, however small, would set me off on a worry tangent.
Here’s how this technique works:
- Take a piece of writing paper and fold it in half. At the top of the page write “Trigger Situation” as the heading for the first half, and “Negative Thoughts” as heading for the second half.
- On the section labeled “Trigger Situation,” briefly describe a scenario that typically causes you stress, worry or anxiety. A single sentence is preferred. For instance, in my case I would write “Looking at my bank statement.”
- On the section labeled “Negative Thoughts” write down the thoughts that generally plague you regarding that situation. In my case I would write “We won’t be able to make it. I can’t believe money is running out so fast. We won’t have money for groceries or even to put gas in the car, so how will I be able to get to work? If I can’t pay the rent we’ll be evicted and then where will we go?” As you write, allow any feelings or physical sensations to come up and cue in additional negative thoughts associated with this scenario.
- Now flip the page over to the blank side, and at the top of the page write “Positive Situation” as the heading for the first half, and “Positive Thoughts” as the heading for the second half.
- In the section labeled “Positive Situation” you are going to briefly describe a scenario or topic that you would like to focus on instead of the triggering situation. Again, a single short sentence is preferred. It could be anything positive from a vacation, an achievement or award, a person you love, or even a pet. The key here is that whatever you pick must not be related to the triggering situation at all. You’ll be writing pleasant thoughts about something that brings you peace or pleasure. In my case I love the beach especially at night because I find it very peaceful and relaxing, so I would write “sitting on the beach on a cool, full moon night.”
- Finally, in the section labeled “Positive Thoughts” you are going to write down some thoughts associated with the positive situation you chose. Just as you did with the “Negative Thoughts” write down some brief sentences about the situation that you find pleasurable or peaceful, and allow the positive feelings or sensations to come up and queue in additional thoughts as you write. In my case I would write something like “I’m sitting barefoot on the beach, and feeling the cool sand between my toes; I feel the cool, refreshing ocean breeze gently brush my face; I close my eyes and I hear the soothing sound of the waves. I take in a deep breath and feel the salty scent of the ocean fill my lungs.”
You are now ready to begin. Keep in mind that this technique requires you to set aside some time for the process, so that you can practice it while you are in a calm and stress-free state of mind. It cannot be successfully learned while you are in the middle of stressful situations, and as you read through the process you’ll understand why.
When you are ready to begin follow these steps:
- Sit in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for at least 5-10 minutes. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and relax your body completely.
- Now look at your paper and read silently the “Triggering Situation” and the “Negative Thoughts” you wrote about. As best as you can, focus on the thoughts and feelings that come up, taking in any sounds, scents, or sights from the scenario you described.
- Allow the scenario to become as vivid as possible and sit with it for a while until you feel like you are on an unstoppable train to worryland (or whatever emotion you feel as a result of the negative thought pattern).
- Once you’ve reached that obsessive-like state, shout “STOP!” very loudly, and mean it! To accentuate the effect snap your fingers, clap your hands loudly, or stomp your feet once.
- Immediately empty your mind of the unpleasant thoughts, flip the page over, and read the positive scenario and related positive thoughts you jotted down. Allow yourself to switch completely to the positive scenario and focus on it as much as possible, taking in all the pleasant sights, sounds, scents, and imagery from the scene; breathe slowly and deeply. Do this for at least for 30 seconds.
- If the negative thoughts or feelings return before the end of the 30 seconds, shout “STOP!” again and focus on your positive scenario and positive thoughts.
Follow the above process until you are successfully able to stop the negative train of thought dead on its tracks when shouting “STOP!” If you find that the positive scenery you’ve chosen is no longer strong enough to hold your attention, the authors recommend picking a different one. It is important that the imagery you choose helps you to completely make the switch from the negative train of thought to a positive one.
As you can see, this technique does not involve resisting the negative thoughts; often, trying to resist a negative thought pattern can backfire and end up accentuating it or reinforcing it instead. This technique is about training or conditioning your brain to instantly (and eventually effortlessly) switch the focus to a different, unrelated positive thought pattern.
Once you’ve succeeded in interrupting the negative thought pattern and refocusing on a positive one by shouting “STOP!” it is time to begin preparations to bringing this newly acquired skill into the real world. Don’t worry, I am not going to ask you to yell “STOP!” and clap, stomp or snap your fingers in the middle of your next office meeting or while you’re standing in front of a bank teller making a withdrawal. Imagine that!
What you’ll be doing is slowly modifying the technique, but you’ll be doing it in stages:
- Still in private, begin to interrupt the negative thought pattern by speaking the word “Stop” in a normal voice instead of shouting it.
- When you have succeeded in doing this, switch to just whispering “Stop.”
- Finally, don’t say anything at all, but instead think the word “Stop!” as if it was being shouted inside your mind. If you have difficulty accomplishing this, wear a loosely fitting rubber band around your wrist, and try thinking the word “Stop!” being shouted in your mind while at the same time snapping the rubber band just enough to feel the snap but not enough to cause you pain.
When you have succeeded in reaching level 3 above, you will be ready to bring this newly acquired skill into the real world without bringing attention to yourself. The next time you find yourself in a situation that causes you stress, worry or anxiety, and you find your mind being plagued by obsessive negative thoughts, shout “Stop!” in your mind (and snap the rubber band if you need to) to interrupt the train of thought, and switch to your positive imagery.
Remember that this is a skill and every skill requires practice to master it. If you’ve struggled with being able to stop or interrupt negative thought patterns, don’t beat yourself up for it. Be patient with yourself and give yourself time. It is likely that negative thoughts will return time and time again even after you’ve mastered this or any other thought-stopping technique. The important thing is to condition your brain to make the switch as early on as possible and to focus on the positive imagery, so that in time the frequency of their occurrence will be greatly reduced.
Have you used this or any other technique to make the stop or replace negative thinking? Please share with us.
I’d love to hear from you!