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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by: Lauren Buetikofer, MA, LPC