We all have it—that ever-present voice in our head. Day in and day out, it clatters away, encouraging us to second-guess ourselves, indulge in our ego, or make judgments about the world around us. Now when I say “voice,” I’m not actually referring to external voices. The voice I’m talking about serves as our inner narrator and, without properly training the mind on how to rein it in, it can be left to run free and ultimately overrun our lives.
When it comes to substance use, this is where our inner voice can, unfortunately, run rampant. The reason being is that this voice is designed to protect us. When we are faced with potential danger, either physical or emotional, our response system goes into a flight-or-fight mode. It warns us to abandon ship to prevent ourselves from experiencing any pain. It’s these moments when ruminating thoughts can replay in our minds, urges resurface, and the over-analytical mind that thrives on “what ifs” paralyzes us with fear.
As much as our body tries to serve us by adhering to our primal instincts, it ultimately becomes an obstacle when it lulls us into a false sense of danger. To help quell these recurring, unwanted thoughts, some psychologists and addiction recovery professionals use “thought stopping,” a process that involves literally commanding one’s inner voice to stop thinking.
While the technique has been widely used for 50 years, it's important to note some medical health professionals today argue that while thought-stopping may be useful in the short run, there are better techniques for overcoming unwanted thoughts, especially over the long run and especially for those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Other approaches to handling unwanted thoughts include mindfulness, acceptance, and some good old-fashioned problem-solving. The problem they argue is that thought-stopping doesn't address the root cause of obsessive thought. With that caveat aside, if you'd like to try thought-stopping, read on.
Thought Stopping Technique: 4 Steps
If you suffer from incessant fear, worrying, or anxiety, follow this step-by-step guide to help you take back control of your life.
Thought Stopping Step 1: Acknowledge It
First, you must become immediately aware of the obsessive thought entering your consciousness. Recognize it and even go so far as to label it—fear, anxiety, addiction, nervousness. Now, instead of pushing the thought away or attempting to ignore it, which will only make it grow louder, there are some healthy things you can do at the moment to acknowledge the urge that is so desperately crying out for your attention.
Thought Stopping Step 2: Counter It
The key to doing this is to act in “real-time.” Some examples include physically vocalizing the word, “Stop!” For a more subtle approach, wear a rubber band or hair tie on your wrist and snap it when you catch yourself thinking unwanted thoughts. Immediately after, it would help if you replaced the unhealthy thought with a more empowering one that contradicts it. For instance, if the ruminating thought is, “I need alcohol to help me get through my day,” the replacement thought can be, “I don’t need alcohol to numb the pain. Life is better when I’m sober, and I’ve been doing just fine so far with my sponsor’s help. If I keep this up, I will continue successfully down this healthy path.”
Thought Stopping Step 3: Get Specific
Being specific and reminding yourself of previous times when the replacement thought turned out to be true can be very helpful. While it may feel strange at first, in time and with practice, this will become an instinct, and you’ll soon be able to recognize when your inner anxious voice is clouding your thinking.
Thought Stopping Step 4: Repeat
You may perform this exercise as many times a day as necessary. You may find that it works to end the thought after one or two attempts. For more ingrained urges and ideas that continue to resurface throughout the day, you may find yourself repeating it more than 50 times. However many times it takes, remember to keep your focus on the end goal.
Thought Stopping: What the Critics Say
Thought stopping is a 50-year old technique widely used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). While most agree thought-stopping can be helpful in the short term (to stop a pernicious thought for the time being), others say the approach is outdated. Some believe more effective techniques exist, especially for stopping thoughts over the long run. Other techniques for overcoming obsessive thoughts include acceptance of unwanted thoughts, problem-solving when the unwanted thought relates to a specific problem and mindfulness techniques.
Help is Available
Freeing yourself from unwanted thoughts requires determination, but it’s important to know that you also don’t have to deal with the problem alone. While thought stopping may help pacify an overactive mind, speaking with a professional can help give you the proper guidance or treatment that’s needed to get you on that path.