How to Stop Unwanted Thoughts

There are times where we go through the day without realizing the thoughts that are coming in our minds. Some of them are good, some of them cause us to procrastinate a lot, and some of them cause us pain. When we are not aware of these thoughts, they can turn into an obsession.

For example, you may experience a painful breakup and keep having obsessive thoughts over your ex boyfriend or girlfriend. Or, you may see a foreclosure sign as you are passing through the neighborhood and you may have obsessive thoughts of not being able to pay your rent bills. As you are walking late at night in the dark, you may have obsessive thoughts of being attacked in the street. All of these things make life harder than it really has to be.

As human being, we don’t know it, but we are often controlled by our thoughts – whether good or bad. Specific thoughts or images that are constantly repeated can lead painful or leading to unpleasant emotional states. Being in a negative state doesn’t do anything to help the problem, it just worsens the situation.

In the late 1960s, behavior therapist Joseph Wolpe came up set ways to treat people with obsessive and phobic thoughts using a therapy called “thought stopping.” It is still used today as a way to cure one of obsessive and unwanted thoughts that can help one get through their day with little to none anxiety and worry. Let’s look at the steps to how we can stop our unwanted thoughts.

Step 1: List Unwanted Thoughts

The first step is to get a white piece of paper. Next, write down a list of general things that worry you and perhaps can cause an unhealthy obsession. These could be subtle habits that you have throughout the day or things that have happened to you in the past that you constantly think about and cannot stop. Some common things are:

  • Worrying whether or not there are germs nearby your body….
  • Worrying whether or not your loved ones are safe after midnight…
  • Worrying whether or not you can get your ex back after a breakup…
  • Worrying whether or not you will be able to pay your bills this month…
  • Worrying whether or not turned off the stove this morning…

Once you have brainstormed some of the things that you generally worry about, the next step is to describe your thoughts specifically. Create “the scene” and create “the thought” that comes after. For example:

  1. Feeling the presence of germs nearby… I might need to go wash my hands again…
  2. Waiting an hour more for lover to arrive home… they might have been injured…
  3. Thinking about what my ex is doing… they might be out with somebody else…
  4. Seeing a huge rent bill in the mail… I might kicked out of apartment…
  5. Driving away from house without checking stove… the house might burn down….

Step 2: List Pleasant Thoughts

After you have done step 1, you need to do the same thing now with “pleasant thoughts” because you’ll be using both for this process. Think of some things that have nothing to do with “unwanted thoughts” – things that you may enjoy. For example:

  • Nature
  • Vacation
  • Awards
  • Sports
  • Love

Next create “the scene” and “the thought” that comes after it.

  1. Fishing in a lake… what kind of fish will I catch today…
  2. Laying down on the sandy beach… I wonder how much sand is there on this beach…
  3. Receiving an award… who else before me has received this award…
  4. Watching a sports game… I wonder who’s going to win the game…
  5. Sitting next to a lover… I wish this can last forever…

Step 3: Go Through Your Thoughts

Now you have both done – great. Find a comfortable place to sit down. Put paper 1 (“unwanted thoughts list”) in front of you and put paper 2 (“pleasant thoughts list”) underneath it. Go through the list of “unwanted thoughts” and select one scenario. You might start with something that doesn’t give you as much anxiety, then work up to something bigger.

Since I’m not going to list all five, I’ve chosen the one that would give me the most anxiety – the thought of accidentally leaving the stove on every time I leave the house. I would sit down and play this scenario through.

I am driving on the freeway and I suddenly remember that I might have left the stove on. Suddenly, I think that there might be steam rising to the roof which could lead to a small fire. The alarm goes off and the neighbors call 911….

Step 4: Interruption

Once you feel like you are in a deep training of thought, it’s time to tell yourself to stop.

The alarm goes off and the neighbors call 911… The house seems to be burning… It is burning! I start to hear the sirens of police and firemen coming! The neighbors start crowding outside! People are running outside! I hear talking… I hear yelling… I hear screaming! I hear… “Stop!”

And that’s when you snap out of your thought. You yell, very loudly, “Stop!” As you are yelling, you can simultaneously clap your hands or snap your fingers for a more intense effect. Once you hear this signal, empty your mind. There’s nothing now – no more fire. Focus on nothing.

Step 5: Switch to Pleasant Thoughts

Good job on passing steps 1 through 4. Now, with what you just did, you would do the same exact thing with a “pleasant thought.” Take a deep breath. And envision yourself going through something that you love doing.

It’s a nice and sunny day outside. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. I’m sailing on a boat in the middle of crystal clear, shallow lake. There are fish swimming all around me as I hold my fishing rod in one hand and take a sip of ice-cold water in the next hand. Suddenly, I feel tension… I have never caught a fish before and this one seems big…! I pull but it’s pulling too… and… and… and… “Stop!”

Break out of it. I know it’s hard to do but snap out of it. Empty your mind. There’s nothing now – no more fish. Focus on nothing.

Step 6: Repeat with Variation

So once you have done the simplest ones, try moving to the next one. Go back and forth from the easier ones to the more difficult scenes. Once you have succeeded with the “loud voice,” begin interrupting your thoughts using a “normal voice.” After succeeding with a “normal voice,” you can start using stop in a “whisper voice.” After you have done it through “whisper voice,” say stop “without making a sound.”Master this process all in your head without having to yell “Stop” out loud.

Step 7: Applying It to The Real World

When you have mastered this in your private state, it’s time to practice this out in the real world. This is why you have gone through steps 1 through 6 in order to get to a point where you can yell “stop” in your head and not have to yell out loud where it can be a disruption to other people.

Also, instead of clapping or snapping at random (as this may look embarrassing), you may want to prepare a rubber band to tie around your wrist. Snapping it will have the same effect. If you don’t like the idea of rubber bands, pinching yourself can also work. And basically, whenever you think of a thought that you don’t want, just yell “Stop” in your head while applying the “snap” or “pinch”. If you get good enough after practice, just saying it once should allow your mind to obey you.

Remember, stopping obsessive thoughts takes time. They will return and you will constantly have to stop them again and again. Don’t give up though; with time, they will return less and less often. Before you know it, they won’t bother you again. Additionally, you can also combine the stop method with breathing. Whenever you yell “Stop” take one breath and exhale. Keep breathing and count them a few times. Focus on your breath while you’re emptying your mind, and you should feel your anxiety pass you by.

Whether it’s a normal day where you randomly think about something that you know is meaningless, or it’s a certain day where you feel that a lot of anxiety is causing you function irrationally, thought stopping can help you save lots of time wasted on thoughts that result in negative emotional states. Just set aside ten to twenty minutes a day to go through visualizing and thought stopping process, and before you know it, you’ll have a skill that will be with you whenever you need to free yourself from unwanted thoughts.