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Why Thought Stopping Doesn’t Work

Thought-stopping involves getting rid of negative or unwanted thoughts.

Some therapists still recommend a technique called "thought stopping". This is quite unfortunate since thought-stopping leads to thought rebounding. The research by Wegner at Harvard on "white bears and other unwanted thoughts" shows that trying not to think of a thought leads to the thought persisting later. In a recent review of strategies that people use, Yale psychologists Ameli Aldao and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema found that suppression strategies for thoughts and emotions are associated with greater anxiety and depression, whereas other strategies (such as problem-solving, acceptance and cognitive restructuring) are associated with less anxiety.

"Thought-stopping,"is a now discarded behavioral technique that involves getting rid of negative or unwanted thoughts by suppressing them. Thus, whenever you have the worry that you will lose all your money in the stock market, you are encouraged to force yourself to stop having these thoughts by snapping a rubber band on your wrist (to distract you) or just yelling to yourself, "Stop." This is supposed to reduce your worries. Unfortunately, thought stopping not only does not work, it actually leads to "thought-rebounding" and makes things worse in the long term.

Let's try testing out thought-stopping. Close your eyes and relax. Now I'd like you to get a very clear image in your head of a white bear-a cute furry, white bear. Now that you have this thought of a white bear clearly in your mind, I want you to stop thinking of white bears for the next ten minutes. Whatever you do, don't think of any white bears. Psychologist David Wegneri found that attempts to suppress thoughts of white bears led to a rebound-or increase-of these thoughts after the suppression. Thus, if you suppress for ten minutes, you will have a substantial increase after the ten minutes is over.

Thought-stopping is based on the idea that you cannot stand having a certain kind of thought. You cannot stand having an "obsession" or a "worry." It confirms your idea that these thoughts are harmful or will lead to your losing control. Thought-rebounding occurs because you cannot eliminate thoughts that are in your mind-you cannot erase your memory. Not only is it impossible to erase your memory, but by actively engaging in suppressing a thought you must pay attention to the thought-you must actually look for the thought that you are trying to suppress! And, to make things even worse, you are saying to yourself that this thought that you are trying to suppress may actually be a dangerous (or an important) thought. Therefore, when you have the thought again, you should really pay attention to it.

This figure shows this process of labeling a thought as "unwanted" or "bad" and how attempts to suppress it will lead to thought-rebounding.

To learn more about effective techniques for handling worry and anxiety see my two books on this subject:

i. Wegner, D. M. (1989). White bears and other unwanted thoughts: Suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control. New York: Penguin.