Thought stopping in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy


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Page last updated: 12/09/2022

Thought stopping in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy

In this blog, we will define the thought-stopping technique in DBT, explore the common techniques of practicing thought stopping and the principle on which it works.

We will also further discuss thought-stopping with an example and understand when it might help and why it is not recommended.

What are some of the common thought-stopping techniques?

  • Snapping a rubber band against your wrist
  • Saying, “Stop!” either out loud or in your head in a firm and authoritative manner.
  • Journaling each time you experience an unwanted thought and keeping track of how often you experience it
  • Replacing the unpleasant thought, with a more pleasant thought or image
  • Imagining a stop sign when the thought comes up
  • Distracting yourself by making noise to stop the thought, such as snapping your fingers or clapping your hands.

 What is thought stopping technique?

As human beings we experience an infinite number of thoughts, while some of these thoughts might be fleeting and pleasant, others could be intrusive and distressing.

At times, it is likely that we could get stuck with a particular thought and it might be difficult to move on. While these thoughts are frequent and recurrent they can hinder us from functioning optimally.

Thought stopping is one of the techniques which you could use to deal with these intrusive thoughts. Thought stopping is a cognitive-behavioral technique used to help individuals deal with negative intrusive thoughts.

It involves giving a conscious command or instruction to your brain, to stop having a thought just when an intrusive thought is arising. It also includes replacing an unhelpful or unpleasant thought with another thought that is more helpful or pleasant.

What are the common thought-stopping techniques?

Some of the common thought-stopping techniques include;

You could learn to stop unwanted thoughts by bringing your focus on that intrusive thought and then learn to say “Stop” to end the thought.

As a first step, you will shout out aloud the word “Stop!” It is a loud verbal command or instruction that you give yourself. Once you have learned this, you will then learn to say ‘stop’ in your mind.  By doing this you can use this technique anywhere.

Here’s how to get started:

  • List the most stressful or intrusive thoughts that you have:

These are the thoughts that make you feel that you are stuck with these thoughts and hinder you from doing your daily activities and make you worry more and feel distressed.

As these thoughts are extremely distressing and worrisome, you have an urge to stop these thoughts, but they keep occurring again and again.

  • List down your thoughts and arrange them in order of most stressful to the least stressful. 

Once you have listed them down, start with the least stressful thought and start practicing thought-stopping and proceed progressively to the most stressful thought.

For example, a list of stressful thought in the order of most stressful to least stressful might look like:

I am worried that I will lose my job.

I am worried that my child might fall ill.

I am extremely anxious about the current project that I can’t take my head off it.

  • Once you have listed down your thoughts, sit in a private place, and start imagining these thoughts. At first, choose the least stressful thought.

Close your eyes and imagine a situation in which you are more likely to have this thought. Now allow yourself to focus on this thought completely.

Once you notice that your attention is completely on this thought, shout out loud the word ‘stop’. Startling yourself is an effective way to distract you and divert your attention from this thought.

You could also use a timer to help you practice this better. Set a timer for 2 minutes and start focusing on your unwanted thought. When the timer goes off, shout “Stop!”

You could also stand up when you say “Stop” or use other strategies like snapping and clapping. These actions and saying “Stop” are mental cues that allow you to stop thinking.

Clear your mind off, and try to keep it empty for about 30 seconds. If the distressing thought comes back during that time, shout “Stop!” again.

Continue to practice steps 1 through 3 until the intrusive thought goes away on your command or instructions. Try the process again. This time, interrupt the thought by saying the word “Stop!” in a normal voice.

Thought stopping in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy
  • Once you are able to stop your thought with a normal voice, then further practice instructing your mind to stop by whispering. With time, eventually from shouting you can progress towards just imagining the instructions.
  • Now move to the second distressing thought from the list and follow the same procedure.

Other ways to stop thoughts

You can practice thought-stopping in different ways:

  • Imagine stop sign: Close your eyes and create a picture of big red stop sign. Picture the vehicles stopping at the bright red stop sign, and wait patiently until it is your turn to go.

Now see if you are still having that intrusive thought? With practice, you learn to automatically stop these thoughts.  

  • Label it as a thought: Tell yourself that ‘you are thinking’ or ‘you are having this thought’. This reinforces the fact these are mere thoughts and not your reality.
  • Replace negative thought with a pleasant one: Once you practice thought stopping, now imagine something pleasurable, for example, being on a vacation, having fun time with friends.

This will help you relax and learn to replace intrusive thoughts with positive ones. This pleasant thought or image need not necessarily be a helpful alternative to the intrusive one.


Principles of thought-stopping:

The mechanism through which thought-stopping helps you is very simple and straightforward. The act of interrupting your thoughts using a stop command and replacing them with more pleasant thoughts not only distracts you but also acts as a positive reminder.

It is common for individuals to ruminate or repeatedly think of fear and worry. If left unchecked, these thoughts have the tendency to become automatic and occur frequently.

While using thought-stopping, you become conscious of some of the unhelpful thoughts and thereby can divert your attention away from these unhelpful and recurrent thought habits.

Further, using the thought-stopping technique might instill in us a sense of control. Following it up with positive and reassuring thoughts could also help in breaking these negative thought chains, and reinforce a sense of reassurance.

Just as how unhelpful thought patterns influenced your feelings and behavior, healthy thoughts too will, leading to more positive feelings and helpful behavior.

An example of thought-stopping:

Here’s an example of how thought-stopping might work:

You are in a work meeting, the meeting is about the management is unhappy with the work performance of a few employees during the month.

Although the names are not revealed in the meeting, the recurrent thought in your mind is that you are one of those employees. Although you want to concentrate on the meeting, you can’t stop worrying about it.

When you start to think of yourself as one of the employees, you say “Stop” quietly in your mind, or you snap your rubber band as you say “Stop.”

Following that you think of something pleasant that distracts you such as a fun party you attended or a vacation dear to your heart.

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Why is thought stopping typically not recommended?

Although thought-stopping seems to be effective on its face value, evidence suggests that it might not really be helpful as it offers a temporary distraction and many thoughts reappear again.

Thought-stopping is considered ineffective by many experts for the following reasons:

Rebound effect:

Evidence has suggested that while thought-stopping can help in the short run, the distressful thoughts reappear with time and when the thought-stopping is discontinued.

Thought-stopping is an ‘Ironic processes’

Social psychologist Wegner, in his Ironic Process, explains this well. The more we try to suppress a thought the more likely it is to resurface. 

While paying attention to if a particular thought is stopped or resurfacing, we end up thinking a lot more about that thought.

It doesn’t address the root cause

Unwanted intrusive thoughts might be deep-rooted than what you imagine. It might be related to childhood trauma, mental health concerns, stressful or distressing life events, etc. 

Thought stopping does not address these underlying issues, and worsen the emotional distress.

It can become a compulsive behavior:

While it is normal to want to stop the disturbing thoughts that come to our minds, the chance of it becoming a compulsive behavior is greater.

The more you experience intrusive thoughts, you might feel compelled to stop the thought right away, and until you are able to stop, you might feel restless and on the edge.

Since thought suppression can lead to a rebound, these thoughts usually end up increasing over time.

When thought-stopping might help?

Thought-stopping might help you postponing worrying about your intrusive thoughts. It might be useful in situations that require you to be present completely and not be distracted by the thought. However excessive use can make it an avoidant coping strategy.

What are other strategies you could use instead of thought-stopping?

Some of the strategies that are found to be more beneficial than thought stopping are:

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In this blog, we defined the thought-stopping technique in DBT; explored the common techniques of practicing thought-stopping and the principle on which it works. We also further discussed thought-stopping with an example and understood when it might help and why it is not recommended.

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Professional counselling

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Frequently Asked Questions:

What are some thought-stopping techniques?

Snapping a rubber band against your wrist
Saying, “Stop!” either out loud or in your head in a firm and authoritative manner.
Journaling each time you experience an unwanted thought and keeping track of how often you experience it
Replacing the unpleasant thought, with a more pleasant thought or image
Imagining a stop sign when the thought comes up
Distracting yourself by making noise to stop the thought, such as snapping your fingers or clapping your hands.

When do you use thought-stopping?

Thought stopping can be used to stop any thought that occurs in your mind. Often it used to stop the negative intrusive thoughts that make you worry.


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