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Friday, 26 September 2014

Does Thought Stopping Work?

Thought stopping is a technique sometime suggested in therapy or coaching as a way of helping you to break away from your anxious or negative thoughts. There are different views in the coaching/counselling/psychology community as to whether or not it works.

The basic technique of thought stopping as I have always understood it is that when you have a recurring anxious or negative or problematic thought you say or do something to take yourself out of that train of thought. So you might say to yourself 'Stop! or 'Don't go there' or 'Forget it', or you might tweak an elastic band on your wrist when the thought occurs.

People  who say this doesn't work tend to advance 1 of 2 arguments:
(1) If you say to someone 'Don't think of a white bear' they will actually find it very hard to stop doing so!
(2)  If you adopt an attitude of trying to fight or combat your anxiety then it tends to fight back even harder. It is better to adopt an approach of accepting and managing your anxiety.

I would agree with both these points although they seem to shed light on how best to use thought stopping - possible Do's and Dont's of Thought Stopping - rather than invalidating it.

I would say that if you use Thought Stopping do not invoke the thought you are trying to stop thinking of, so don't say: 'Don't think of a white bear' just say something like 'Relax, Chill out' or something that breaks up your flow of thought but does not refer to the problematic thought itself.

Secondly, I agree that you don't want to try to out-fight your anxiety, so if you are using thought stopping it is best if you can do it with an attitude that is accepting or calm or humourous not one of anguish or fight or self-criticism.

I recall one client who used the phrase 'Oh Well!' with a shrug of the shoulders when she noticed that she was locked in a negative anxious reflection. This worked very well for her and seems to me to indicate a helpful accepting way in which you might productively use a thought stoppping technique or phrase. In my view thought stopping is likely to be most useful when done like this is as a simple observation of the fact that you have been obsessing and a 'letting go' of that rather as an angry command.

In summary, I think the jury may still be out on whether thought stopping works, but my view is that it can work so long as you do it in a way that shows you are simply noting the negative thought is there and 'letting go' of it in a mild mannered way. You don't need to take it too seriously and certainly try not to think of yourself as attacking the negative thought as that may rebound on you. One thing you don't want to do is get more wound up by it. Quite the opposite - try to accept that you obsess sometimes - don't we all? - and smile at yourself as you let go.

This is consistent with the accepting attitude that I suggested in my last blog post which you can find by clicking on the link below:

The Paradox of Anxiety

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1 comment:

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