These Exercises To Stop Negative Thinking Could Heal You OR…

thought stopping exercises

Have you been considering using exercises to stop negative thinking? If so, you might be wondering, “do negative thought stopping exercises and techniques work?”

In my experience as a meditation teacher, the more I try to forcefully stop my thoughts the worse they get. I find it impossible to completely stop thoughts. While we might want to remove intrusive and recurring negative thoughts, we cannot simply delete them.

It seems obvious that you would want to stop negative thoughts because they cause emotional pain. Worse, some types of thoughts, such as catastrophic thinking, can cause mental health problems like anxiety and depression.

There certainly are some powerful techniques for stopping negative thoughts.  However, instead of stopping negative thoughts altogether, it is better to take the negative thoughts and turn it into something more positive. 

Exercises To Stop Negative Thinking Might Not Work

There are many exercises to stop negative thinking. They are based on the idea of completely eliminating any painful or harmful thoughts. And indeed, they sound great because some thoughts are brutal [READ: 11 brutal types of negative thoughts]. 

There are indeed times when thoughts do literally stop. This is called “Mind Blanking”.

Research conducted by Adrian F. Ward and Daniel M. Wegner and published in Frontiers In Psychology reveals that “when the mind seems to disappear, there are times when we have simply failed to monitor its whereabouts—and there are times when it is actually gone.” [1].

You have probably experienced this. I know that I myself often have moments when I realise my mind has been gone somewhere although I’m not sure where. This is called “Mind Blanking”. However, this doesn’t mean that our thoughts have stopped, just that we are temporarily unaware of them.

Some therapists use exercises to stop negative thoughts. For instance, one exercise is to literally say “Stop” in your mind. 

However, the research on techniques like this is unclear. Some research suggests that thought stopping techniques can be beneficial. Other research disagrees. 

Research by Wegner, D. M. at Harvard University [2] shows that when we try to stop thinking negative thoughts, we actually cause them to crop up again later. Not only this, but it actually causes an increase in feelings of anxiety and depression.

 It is generally agreed that attempting to stop your negative thoughts is a universally bad idea. But why?  

Think about the Pink Elephant

Imagine a big pink elephant in your mind. Visualize it clearly. Force yourself to stop thinking about the elephant for ten minutes   After ten minutes of suppressing the thought, notice how you cannot help but think about the elephant. Thought suppression actually causes you to think the thought more, not less. And that is why thought-stopping exercises simply do not work.   

I know from my own experience that when I try to stop negative thoughts they simply get louder and more intrusive. Putting up psychological barriers does not work for me and actually makes my situations worse. 

Robert L. Leahy PhD states that “thought-stopping leads to thought rebounding.” [3]

Dave Carbonell, PhD agrees. He tells us that you will never stop negative thoughts by simply holding up a big red “STOP” sign to them. He says, “Worry and other forms of unwanted thoughts are like a heckler, rather than a mugger. You’ll be better off working with them than against them.” [4].   

So, if exercises to stop negative thoughts do not work, what does?

5 Techniques That Are Better Than Negative Thought Stopping Exercises

 The following exercises are all based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a psycho-social intervention that aims to improve mental health 

 

1. See negative thoughts for what they truly are

Instead of using negative thought-stopping exercises, learn to see your negative thoughts for what they truly are. The best way to do this is to practice Buddhist vipassana meditation.

Vipassana meditation technique is an exercise in which we label our thoughts as they run through our minds. For instance, if we see a visual idea of something bad happening, we simply label it “visual”.

This simple exercise stops thoughts from having such a big impact on us. It does this by simply reminding us that things in our minds are only in our minds.

Too often we see thoughts as absolutes. We get lost in our imaginings and forget that they are not real. By simply saying to ourselves, “This is a thought”, we remind ourselves that our thoughts are not real. Then they have less of an emotional impact on us.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Sit on a chair somewhere quiet and comfortable. Make sure your feet are shoulder-width apart and that your spine is in good alignment. Tuck your chin in a little to elongate your neck. 
  2. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Continue to breathe mindfully for ten minutes. 
  3. You will notice that intrusive thoughts enter your mind. And you might feel inclined to forcefully try and stop them. But the more you try and stop them the worse they will get. Instead, mindfully observe your thought. Now describe the thought to yourself. For instance, if you see a mental image, say to yourself, “This is just an image in my mind and is not real.”
  4. This process (called Vipassana Meditation) trains the mind to see thoughts more clearly, to realise that they are just thoughts and are not real. This makes us less reactive to negative thoughts.

2. Imagine it happening and ask “What then?”

One of the biggest problems with so called “Thought stopping exercises” is that they train the mind to think of a negative thought as an absolute “No.”

If you stop negative thoughts, you prevent your mind from seeing past them. This creates almost a void, because your mind does not know where to go after it encounters the negative idea.

Rather than using thought stopping exercises, ask “If the worst thing happens, what happens next?”

For instance, let’s say you’re terrified your marriage is heading to the divorce court. You try using thought stopping exercises to prevent yourself from thinking about it. But those ideas keep ruminating.

Ask yourself, “What then?” What if you do break up? You will go through pain, recover, and move on, and before long the time will come when you are okay again.

By continuing the thought in this way, you teach your mind that the negative thought is not absolute and that even if the worst happens life will still go on.

 

3. Remind yourself of all the things that are preventing it from happening

When we focus on simply stopping thoughts, we prevent ourselves from logical reasoning. Instead of using thought stopping exercises, challenge those painful ruminations with some rational logic. Ask yourself both why the negative thought could happen and why it won’t happen

For instance, let’s say you’re worried about losing your job because you’ve been performing badly. Ask yourself why you could lose your job and list the reasons (I’m performing badly / my results are declining / I don’t know how to fix the problem). This gives you valuable information that you can use to solve the problem.

Now ask yourself why it won’t happen (because I’m working on improving my performance / because I have great ideas / because I’m going to put in overtime to make sure I hit my targets).

By acknowledging both sides of the argument, you give yourself valuable insights that can help you to work around a possible negative event, and you also exercise your mind in thinking rationally about stressful events.

 

4. Learn the lesson

Too often a negative thought simply needs to be acknowledged. Ironically, this is precisely what thought stopping exercises prevent you from doing. When you try to stop them, you prevent yourself from acknowledging them. 

Instead of blocking the thought, ask yourself, “What is the lesson in this thought, and how do I act on it?”

For instance, let’s say you are experiencing painful thoughts about money. You’re worried you’re going to go broke and fail to pay the rent. You could block this thought; in which case you will learn nothing from it. Or you could ask yourself, “What is this thought teaching me? And how do I act on it?” Then you can see that the thought is teaching you to be more careful with money, and you can act on it.

 

5. Imagine the worst

One of the reasons why thoughts cause pain is we do not accept them. Buddha taught that acceptance is the key to happiness. One way to accept thoughts is to imagine the absolute worst that could possibly happen and then imagine getting through it.

“Picturing yourself tackling the imagined worst possibility often gives us confidence that even if the worst were to happen, we would still be able to handle it.”

 

Do not use exercises to stop negative thinking 

Negative Thought Stopping Exercises will do you more harm than good. Because ultimately, painful thoughts exist for a reason, and they demand to be acknowledged.

Instead of stopping those painful ideas in your mind, be mindful and rational. Learn to see those thoughts for what they are and what they represent.

What can you learn from that negativity? How are those negative thoughts helping you? And how can you use see them for the better? 

 

SOURCES:

1: Mind Blanks: When The Mind Goes Away, Adrian F. Ward and Daniel M. Wegner, Frontiers In Psychology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3784796/

2: Daniel Wegner, Wikipedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Wegner

3:  Why Thought Stopping Doesn’t Work, Robert L. Leahy Ph.D., https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/anxiety-files/201007/why-thought-stopping-doesn-t-work

4: Thought Stopping: It Makes Worry Worse, Dave Carbonell, PhD, https://www.anxietycoach.com/thought-stopping.html

5: 7 Effective Thought-Stopping Techniques for Anxiety,  Tall Space, Melissa Stanger [licensed therapist]  https://www.talkspace.com/blog/anxiety-thought-stopping-techniques/

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By Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a qualified meditation teacher and writer with more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential through mindfulness, yoga and meditation.