The 1-2-3’s (and “4”) of Thought Stopping: How to Stop Your Negative Thoughts from Snowballing

If you’re like most people, you probably find yourself on the occasional “hamster wheel” of negative or unhelpful thoughts; that is, the thoughts just keep going around and around and around and around until you’re so dizzy and exhausted that you just about fall down from thinking about it. Even worse: your thoughts snowball. It start off as a small, somewhat negative or unhelpful passing thought, but then it gets a little bigger, occupies a little bit more of your mental energy and time, and continues to grow until it’s all consuming, self-defeating, and downright exhausting.

Many of my clients relay to me this all-too-common cycle of thinking and how it almost inevitably ends in a panic attack, a sleepless night, or an unproductive day filled with nothing but worry. When I hear this, my first line of defense is always Thought Stopping.

As you can probably gather from the name, the act of Thought Stopping is exactly that: putting a stop to all those unhelpful, negative thoughts. As with anything, it’s easier said than done, but with enough practice and consistently applied application, you’ll be well on your way to getting off your own hamster wheel.

Step One: Catch the negative thought. Okay, this seems really obvious, but it needs to be said. Throughout a day we all have thousands of thoughts, whether we are aware of them or not. No, I’m not about to go off on a long and drawn out Freudian “unconscious thought” tangent, but the statement is worth exploring. How long into your negative thought cycle are you until you realize you’re back on the hamster wheel? For some people, this step is easy. If it is, high-five to you and move onto the next step.

 If it isn’t, try keeping a simple “thought log.” You can practice this in five-minute increments, or you can track your thoughts throughout the day. For instance, take 5 minutes out of your day to write down every thought you have in a time span of five minutes. It can be as simple as “I’m hungry” or “I’m thinking about this activity” to as deep and complex as “I’m not really sure what I’m doing with my life.” This five-minute kick-starter activity will help you to become more aware of the thoughts you have, and will hopefully help you to identify your negative thoughts as they crop up.

To track your thoughts throughout the day, keep a sheet of paper or a little notebook with you, and jot notes on your thoughts anytime you’re aware of any thoughts you have. Again, they can either be profound or simple. This act of acknowledging your thoughts and taking note of them will bring awareness to the thoughts you have throughout the day, and will increase your likelihood of catching your negative thoughts before they snowball.

Step Two: Stop the negative thought. I must be joking, right? Seriously though, we need to cut that sucker off until it snowballs into something unmanageable, right? There’s a number of ways to go about cutting off your thoughts in their tracks. Whenever I teach this to my client, I always make the “chopping” gesture with my hands (you know the one- left hand flat, palm up, and parallel to the floor, right hand perpendicular to the left and comes down the middle of the left in a sort of “chopping” fashion), and I’ve done this so much so that now any time I think of thought stopping I automatically think of that gesture. For me, I might either think of that gesture or actually do the gesture if I wanted to stop a negative thought. When I teach this method to kids, I tell them to think of a huge red stop sign- one so big that they can’t see anything else. Some people like to say “STOP” out loud or in their head… anything to distract your mind from continuing down the path of your negative thought.

Step Three: Challenge the negative thought. In most cases—not all, but most—our negative thoughts are irrational, unhelpful, and biased toward one side of the argument. In this third step I challenge my clients to think of the evidence that doesn’t support their negative thought. For example, if a client tells me they feel like they don’t have a support system, I’ll ask them to challenge that thought and find that evidence that the thought isn’t true. When they think about it, they might say, “Well, I do have my one friend who says she's always there if I need her, but I’ve never actually tried leaning on her for support when I need it.” If they continue thinking on the matter, they might also add something to the effect of “my co-workers are always asking how I’m doing, but I never actually open up to them.” Okay, good. Now we’re getting somewhere. In most cases, there’s some counter-evidence to our irrational, negative thoughts, and we just need to dig a little deeper to find it. Keep pulling up evidence that negates your negative thought until you don’t feel its effects anymore. Once we acknowledge the counter-evidence and “let it marinade,” then suddenly our original, negative thoughts don’t have much ground to stand on.

Step Four: Change the thought and move on. This is the point that you jump off your hamster wheel. In step three, we’ve put the negative thought to rest by knocking down some of its validity. At this point, it’s time to move on. Think of something else unrelated. Think of something happier, more helpful.

If the thought crops up again, repeat the steps until it’s laid to rest yet again. Thought stopping isn’t always perfect, and it certainly isn’t a “once-and-done” sort of deal. It takes practice and persistence. The more you do it, the more likely you are to find it to be a successful tool to add to your box of coping mechanisms. Give it a few weeks and see if it’s a good tool for you. Good luck!

If you have questions about thought stopping, application of this skill in your life, or to schedule an appointment to explore more useful coping mechanisms to help you manage, please don’t hesitate to contact me at


Written by: Lauren Buetikofer, MA, LPC

Does The Snow Make You Feel Anxious Or Depressed?

The snow has begun to fall in Chicago... Are you prepared for the snow and colder temperatures? Do you feel like you are beginning to isolate yourself and stay inside? Are you starting to feel sad or depressed with this winter weather?

Finding a balance during frigid temperatures and snow can be quite challenging. Push yourself to go outside and hit the gym even if it is cold outside. Go to the stores and run your errands like you usually do. The more we sit around, the more time we have to think and become anxious or depressed. Some individuals may feel anxious about driving in the snow. Be safe and remember you are in control of your own driving. You can't control other drivers but you can control yourself. If you start to panic, pull over, do some breathing exercises until you feel it is safe enough to drive. Take some time to become mindful of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors during certain weather and season changes.

If you feel like your stuck in a anxious or depressive state that is impacting your functioning and ability to live a fulfilling life, find a counselor in your area. If you are seeking a counselor in the Schaumburg area, call Life Balance Counseling at 888.234.7628. Stay warm!

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

As the days get darker in fall and winter time, some individuals may experience Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is a mood disorder that is associated with seasonal changes. If an individual is experiencing seasonal Affective Disorder, they may experience symptoms of depression, fatigue, irritability, social avoidance, changes in sleep and eating patterns.

You may be thinking, what can I do to improve my symptoms as the seasons continue to change and the days get shorter and darker? It is important to be aware of the symptoms you are experiencing and get the help you need. If you are experiencing depression symptoms that are impacting your daily functioning, seek professional mental health help.

There are somethings you can do that may help relieve your SAD symptoms. Increase your daily exercise, maintain a healthy diet and make sure to get enough sleep. If you don't feel like your symptoms are getting any better and feel like you are stuck in a state of depression, seek a mental health professional that can help provide you with the tools to help you cope with sadness, social avoidance, and sleep issues. Some other options for treatment of SAD is light therapy which helps because during the fall and winter seasons we don't experience much sunlight. You may seek the help of a psychiatrist that may prescribe you an antidepressant based on the symptoms you are experiencing.

"Wherever you go, no matter what the weather, always bring your own sunshine." -Anthony D'Angelo