We asked the experts.
If your anxiety levels have shot through the roof over the last 18 months, you’re definitely not alone.
In fact, chances are you’ve spent far too long frantically googling ways to help ease your mind – and maybe you’ve found some techniques that help, but if not, one particular practice that’s cropping up time and time again is ‘thought stopping’.
Often used during Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), it’s becoming more common.
“We're increasingly aware of how positive affirmations can help boost your mood and put you in the right mindset, especially when you’re feeling low, and how negative self-talk can be very damaging – this is very closely related to thought stopping,” says Floss Knight, psychotherapist and CEO of UK Therapy Guide.
But how can thought stopping be incorporated into your life and is it a worthwhile tool to help ease anxious thoughts? We asked the experts to break it down for us. Here’s what they had to say.
What is thought stopping?
“Thought stopping is a technique where individuals are encouraged to be aware of their thinking, and as soon as a negative thought arises, you stop it,” says Dr Nilufar Ahmed, psychologist and lecturer at University of Bristol.
There are a few different ways of doing that – some people say ‘stop!’ out loud, while others choose to snap an elastic band that they keep on their wrist.
“These techniques interrupt the thinking by bringing other senses – like hearing, talking or pain – into the focus.
Once you’ve stopped the thought, you’re encouraged to replace it with something positive, or with an affirmation.
When thought stopping is taught, individuals are asked to identify positive thoughts or memories that they can immediately focus on,” explains Dr Ahmed.
How does thought stopping work?
“It helps people recognise that they do have control over our thoughts and that they can change their thinking to help themselves,” says Dr Ahmed.
“Often negative thinking and anxious thoughts can become automatic and so we don’t recognise that we’re entering into a cycle of thoughts.
It can often feel like we’re consumed by this thinking and that it’ll never end, so by becoming aware of it, we can recognise patterns or specific thoughts that lead to increased anxiety, and we can remind ourselves this will pass, it is not permanent.”
What are the best thought stopping practices?
“You can try processing the thought – journaling can be useful. Write down the thoughts and explore what they mean – when did you have this thought? What was happening before and after?
What happens when these thoughts arise? Are they helpful or disruptive? What would be more beneficial to you?
Is there anything you know that can help alleviate these thoughts, e.g. if your negative thoughts centre on you performing poorly at work, what can you do to build your confidence – can you have a chat with colleagues or your manager to check your performance?” says Dr Ahmed.
It’s also important to accept that we all have these thoughts. “By doing that we remove the power that these negative thoughts have, knowing that we have millions of thoughts every single day – negative, neutral and positive – reminds us that we are more than just the negative ones,” she adds.
Other practices, like guided meditation, can help in allowing the thoughts to pass, but if your thoughts are affecting your anxiety then it’s important to find a therapist that you can talk to in order to help gain greater clarity on your thinking.
Does thought stopping actually help ease anxiety?
“While the idea of thought stopping works in theory, it’s not always easy to stop our thoughts.
They’re arising for a reason – something in our brain is telling us there is a threat, which is what triggers the anxiety,” says Dr Ahmed.
“With that in mind, it can be more helpful to try and understand what the perceived threat is and why we feel that way. Counselling and psychotherapy can help address underlying issues which result in anxiety, stress, and negative thinking.”
Why do some experts believe thought stopping doesn’t work?
“It can, in some situations, be detrimental – stopping a negative thought does not make it disappear,” says Dr Ahmed. “Instead, the thought may just become repressed.
Thought stopping can also tell our brain that we should not be thinking in this way, and for many people, negative thinking is based on self-criticism of some sort, and by telling ourselves to stop our thinking it can become an added level of criticism to someone already struggling with critical thinking patterns.”
Knight concurs, saying that she thinks it’s best for people to trial different mechanisms and techniques in order to find a combination that works.
“It’s important to repeat that that thought stopping doesn’t work for everybody and if somebody is experiencing intrusive, troubling thoughts that mean they feel unable to go about their everyday life, it is essential they speak to a professional who can advise on the best coping mechanisms and support.”
Are there any alternative practices to help ease anxiety?
In short, yes, there are – here are Knight’s five alternative tips on coping with anxiety:
•If you are feeling anxious, don’t beat yourself up for having these feelings, be kind and gentle to yourself. Know that these feelings are very valid but that they will pass. If they start to become overwhelming and interfere with your day to day life, then think about seeking professional help.
•Do a H.A.L.T check: are you Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? If you experience anxiety, try to take a minute if and when things feel overwhelming to check in about these things.
Each of these HALT factors triggers physical and emotional parts of anxiety, but each of them can be supported.
•Speak to a trusted friend, someone you feel close to and that is kind and loving. Don't make the mistake of looking for warmth and support from someone you find tricky.
If you don't have someone like that in your life, know that there are many experts out there who can help you and offer that essential support.
Many people find that verbalising their feelings helps remove them from their head – and offers a chance to think about solutions.
•Do not overdo things or push yourself, we often underestimate the impact of overexertion.
•Exercise is great for shifting a low, fogged up mood. Exercise creates endorphins which help relieve pain and stress.
Endorphins are one of many neurotransmitters released when you exercise, and physical activity also stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
These brain chemicals play an important part in regulating mood.
This originally appeared on GLAMOUR UK