Thoughts affect life in myriad ways. Negative thoughts inhibit growth. They can hobble friendships, create suspicions in relationships, prevent succeeding in job interviews and lead to failure at work and home.
Researchers at UW Health, the integrated health system of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have created a technique called thought-stopping to prevent unwanted thoughts from spoiling your life. Since changing a thinking pattern takes time, the thought-stopping technique must be practised every day.
Can you stop your thoughts? Yes, you can.
When an unwanted thought arises, focus on it and then say “stop” to end it. Begin by shouting “stop!” out loud. Slowly, you will learn to say it in your mind so that this technique can be employed anywhere. The process has these steps:
1. List the worst thoughts in order of intensity. You want to stop distracting thoughts, but you are helpless to stop them. Write them down in order of the most stressful to the least stressful. Begin your thought-stopping method by focusing on the least stressful thought. Examples of most stressful thoughts:
- I’m always worried about my health, and expect that even cold is a sign of lung cancer.
- I fear that I’m going to be sacked because the economy is bad.
- I’m so nervous about doing the PPT the boss asked for that I can’t concentrate on anything else.
2. Visualise the thought. Choose a private place to sit or lie down. Say “stop!” loudly without feeling self-conscious. Close your eyes. Imagine a situation that leads to the stressful thought. Focus on the thought.
3. Stop it.
- Set a timer or alarm for three minutes. Lie or sit down. Focus on the unwanted thought. When the alarm goes off, shout aloud “stop!” You can stand up when you say it. You can also snap your fingers or clap hands. These actions and saying “stop” become cues embedded in your mind to stop thinking. Empty your mind, and try to keep it empty for 30 seconds. If the negative thought returns during that time, shout “stop!” again.
- Shout “stop!” at intervals of three minutes, two minutes, and one minute. Record your shouts. Follow with the thought-stopping exercise. Focus on the thought, and then stop thinking about it when you hear the recorded “stop”. Hearing your own voice saying “stop” reinforces your commitment to banish the negative thought.
4. Keep practising until the thought vanishes at your command. Repeat process. This time, halt the thought by saying “stop!” in your normal voice.
5. When you become capable of stopping the thought using your normal voice, whisper “stop”. It will take time, but eventually saying “stop” in your mind will sound like a real voice. Once this stage is reached, you master your mind and can stop any thought whenever and wherever.
6. Next, choose the thought that is worse than the last one, and continue the thought-stopping technique.
7. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Imagine you are sitting in your car or any other vehicle. Visualise a large “stop” sign with white letters on a red background. In your mind, you are in a line of cars which are waiting at the STOP sign. Once your turn comes, take a deep breath and start driving. The unwanted thought may not go away immediately but with time and practice, your brain will automatically produce the image and action, thus stopping unwanted thoughts.
8. You’re worried about an exam later in the day. You’ve prepared well. But you can’t stop worrying and feeling insecure that you could make a mistake and fail. When you begin to imagine that you are stumbling over the answers, say “stop” in your mind. Get up and move around. Snap a rubber band in your fingers when you’re saying it. Then feel a pleasant thought to take your mind off the negative feeling like a joke you heard.
9. Tell yourself, “I’m going to be fired from my job.” Be aware of the thought. You will then begin realising that they are only thoughts, not real situations waiting to happen.
10. After stopping a negative thought, come up with a calming thought, memory or image that is pleasant and reassuring. These have to be unrelated to the negative thought you felt before. For example, think of going with your family to your favourite restaurant or lying in your mother’s lap when you were a child. Or simply about yourself, travelling on a holiday.