The Challenges of Thought-Stopping

Revised 1/22/20

What is Thought-Stopping? In an earlier post, I have discussed the idea that obsession and rumination by a hurt partner are the first major obstacles to affair recovery. For Hurt Partners to heal, they must regain control of their thoughts. Many clients ask if Thought-Stopping techniques work.

It’s a challenge to overcome intrusive thoughts, and it’s normal for hurt partners to dwell on their attachment injury. In this post, I hope to offer hurt partners a few Thought-Stopping techniques to bringing obsessive rumination under conscious control.

Modern Thought-Stopping techniques have roots in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. However, Thought-Stopping is also an ancient method of self-management. It is a well-known mental exercise in both the East and the West, specifically, ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy, and Buddhism. Ancient philosophers invite you to notice your thoughts and the degree to which you indulge them.

Principles Behind Thought Stopping in Affair Recovery

The principles behind Thought-Stopping are deceptively simple. The Hurt Partner interrupts obsessive thoughts with a “stop” command which serves both as a distraction and a prompt.


Research on Hurt Partners tells us that obsessive thoughts tend to ruminate or repeat in their minds for an average of 18 to 24 months after the disclosure of an affair. Therapists help Hurt Partners deal with an increasing cascade of disturbing dark thoughts.

By employing the techniques of Thought-Stopping, Hurt Partners may become more aware of distressing thought chains and learn to divert their attention away from thoughts that negatively trigger their nervous systems.

One of the essential benefits of Thought-Stopping to a Hurt Partner is restoring a sense of control.

Thought-Stopping employs a sense of contrast and substitution. It is not enough to stop triggering thoughts; they must also install healthy ideas to replace them. This growing sense of agency helps Hurt Partners to acquire a more conscious appreciation for their ability to engage in thought processes that might at first seem beyond their control. But does Thought-Stopping work?

Here are the conventional ideas you may have heard about Thought-Stopping. Then I will discuss how scientific research has debunked some of these ideas and introduced some new and better ones.

Conventional Thought-Stopping Techniques

To curb toxic thoughts, focus on negative thinking, and then shout, “Stop!” to interrupt the idea. At first, you will shout the word “Stop!” out loud. The importance of this is to tell your nervous system that there is a new sheriff in town.

imagine a bright red stop sign in your mind instead. Let’s break a thought-stopping ritual down step by step:

What Are Your Most Toxic Thoughts? What are the unwelcome ruminations that trance you out and distract you from your daily routine?  At first, you may believe you are powerless over them. You want them to stop, but they keep occurring at will. Take a toxic thought inventory. Map them.

Write Down These Toxic Thoughts. Start with the First as the Worst.  How many distinct toxic thoughts did you come up with? List them in order of intensity and start with the ones on the bottom that you consider to be the least intense. We need to get some “wins” under your belt.

thought-stoppingImagine the Toxic Thought. For your first attempt, lie down in your bedroom (assuming it is not a triggering setting). Breathe deeply and relax. Close your eyes. At first, remember a time when you had this toxic thought. Then gradually allow the thought to fill your awareness.

Stop the Thought.  As I mentioned earlier, interrupting your patterned thinking is how you interrupt a toxic thought.

Step by Step Thought Stopping Techniques

  •   Set a timer on your watch to ring in 3 minutes. Begin to allow your toxic thought to enter your mind. When the alarm rings, shout, “Stop!” loudly and firmly.
  •   A physical action concurrent with shouting “Stop!” will help it become anchored into your nervous system. There are several options here.  You can jump up when you say, “Stop!” Or raise a defiant fist into the air. Imagine the thought on a TV screen that you just turned off. Watch the image sputter, flat-line, and fade.
  •    Breathe deeply as you empty your mind and try to keep it empty for about 30 seconds. If the toxic thought comes back during that time, shout “Stop!” again. And repeat the physical activity you chose along with it.
  •   After using a timer for about 6 thought-stopping sessions. Switch your technology. Record yourself shouting “Stop!” at intervals of 3 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute. Do the thought-stopping exercise. Focus on allowing the thought to fill your awareness, and then imagine the thought fading as if on that TV set, you just turned off now you hear your recorded voice shout, “Stop!” Hearing your own voice instructing you to stop helps to neurologically enhance your commitment to getting rid of the toxic thought.
  • Practice and rehearse steps 1 through 3 until the toxic thought fades when told to do so. Repeat the process. This time interrupt the thought by only saying the word “Stop” in a normal tone of voice.
  • When you achieve to the point where your normal voice can stop the Toxic thought, try whispering, “Stop.”
  • Once that works, imagine merely hearing the word “Stop” inside your mind.
  • Move up to the next distressing thought that bothers you a bit more than the last one and continue your ritual of Thought-Stopping.

More Conventional Thought-Stopping Techniques

It’s helpful to mix it up when you are Thought-Stopping. Learn to do it in a variety of ways. And stop any efforts that make you feel more anxious or depressed.

  •   Close your eyes and take five deep breaths.
  •   Vividly imagine a large, bright-red stop sign. Picture a stream of cars stopping at the sign and waiting patiently and obediently until they can move forward. Stop. Wait for your turn. Then take a deep breath and drive across the imaginary highway. Are you still holding that toxic thought? It will take time and effort, but your brain and nervous system will adjust on their own, and these toxic thoughts will fade.
  •   Make yourself aware of an unwanted toxic thought by saying to yourself (for example), “I’m having the thought that my husband is with another woman right now.”  Speaking the thought aloud is a reminder that you are the generator as well the observer of the thought, and that the thought derives no reality from what your senses are taking in now.
  •   This last part is crucial. After you successfully interrupt a toxic thought, generate an image that allows you to feel more grounded and calmer. This image should not be connected to any poisonous thought.  You might have a picture of yourself having a great time with friends, engaging in a relaxing pastime, on lounging on a beach.
  •   Breathe deeply and feel gratitude for wrestling your mind back from toxic rumination.

Principles Behind Thought-Stopping Techniques

  1. Recognize Negative Thoughts and Replace Them. Thought-Stopping will help you map out the pattern of intrusive thoughts and how you respond to them mentally, emotionally, and physically.
  2. Build Awareness to Identify, Isolate, Eliminate, and replace Dark Thoughts.
  3. Journaling can help you track triggers, engage in positive self-talk, and notice reasons to be grateful. A therapist may also assign written journaling homework to boost your Thought-Stopping ability to confront, challenge, and change habitual negative thinking.
  4. Skill Building and Behavioral Changes. Good couples therapy might include some specific behavioral interventions to help you imagine triggering situations and build skills in managing toxic thinking.
  5. Body Awareness. Science-based couples therapy also focuses on increasing your awareness of how your body becomes physiologically aroused and how to interrupt and shift your nervous system’s habitual patterns.

The Controversy Around Thought Stopping

Thought-Stopping has become somewhat controversial. One of the reasons is that we now understand the phenomena of rumination in a more sophisticated way.

Even though the idea of Thought-Stopping has been with us for thousands of years, some researchers have discovered that particularly for patients with mental illness and substance abuse issues, telling them to challenge their intrusive thoughts is not only ineffective, it may also be harmful.

Another issue is that some clients assume too much responsibility for their intrusive thoughts. This may cause them to rebound with even greater force. If your attempt at Thought-Stopping has heightened your negative thinking, it’s best to stop the Thought-Stopping techniques that you have been using up to that point and discuss other options with your therapist.

Research by Dr. Daniel Wegner at Harvard on “white bears and other unwanted thoughts” shows that trying not to think a thought may lead to it returning with a vengeance like a boomerang in some cases.

The Special Problem of Thought-Stopping for Women and Teens

 Other research by Yale psychologists Ameli Aldao and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema suggested that for some people Thought-Stopping can actually increase anxiety and depression.

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema was chair of Yale’s Department of Psychology. She was a renowned scholar, teacher, mentor, and academic leader. Susan was recognized internationally for her work on how people regulate emotions and how maladaptive thinking can aggravate emotional problems, especially depression. She had a particular interest in the Thought-Stopping battles of women and adolescents.

Rumination Reduces our Ability to Accept Help from Others

Dr. Hoeksema did groundbreaking research on rumination, which is the tendency to focus on the causes and consequences of problems, rather than using thought to confront and solve problems. Her research discovered that rumination not only interferes with the capacity to solve problems, it also reduces our ability to accept help from other people who care about us.

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema was an important researcher. Her work on rumination was essential to our current understanding of the power of human thought. These researchers point out that thoughts are not inanimate objects that we can act upon with intention, and sometimes persistent efforts toward Thought-Stopping could be harmful.

Unfortunately, both Susan Nolen-Hoeksema and Daniel Wegner passed away in 2013.

Has Research Found Something Better than Thought-Stopping?

“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

  • Choose an “Absorbing Distractor” and focus on that instead. Instead of attempting to suppress an unwanted thought, replace it instead. For example, Wegner and his research team asked study subjects to think of a red Volkswagen instead of a white bear. They found that having a different thought else to focus on helped avoid unwanted thoughts. One of these shifts can be a shifting awareness of “I am having the thought that…” Mindfully cultivate an observing self and find an absorbing distractor to link to the unwanted thought.
  • Make a “Worry Appointment” with yourself. Wegner learned that having a 30-minute block of time devoted to worrying made it easier to refrain from worrying during the rest of their day. So when a dark thought comes up, say to yourself, ” I’ll think about that on Saturday at 1:30.” Make a “Worry Appointment” with unwanted thoughts.
  • Watch your “Cognitive Load” factor: The more mental stuff you juggle, the more anxiety you will experience, and the harder the time you will have managing your thoughts. Multi-tasking and Thought-Stopping don’t mix well. Self-care is critical. Don’t overtax your brain and expect to control your thoughts easily.
  • Exposure: Thinking about the unpleasant intrusive thought in a controlled and disciplined way is painful but can work.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness:  Dr.Wegner’s research on mindfulness and meditation indicated that developing greater mental control helps curb unwanted thoughts.

Importance of Thought-Stopping

Thought-Stopping is an extremely broad topic. And I want to be clear that I am focused on a very particular kind of rumination; the intrusive thoughts that afflict Hurt Partners recovering from infidelity.

Triggers usually are an ongoing challenge in the early phase of affair recovery. Thought Stopping techniques may be an essential part of your affair recovery process. But Thought Stopping is only one tool, and your therapist may include other tools to help you manage triggers as well.

Think broadly about all of these Thought-Stopping techniques. Some of these ideas may work for you, and some may not. Discontinue any Thought Stopping techniques which increase your stress or result in a “boomerang” effect of the unwanted thought returning with greater intensity. Discuss all your attempts at Thought-Stopping carefully with your couples therapist.

Get Help with Your Intrusive Thoughts Today


“Honoring a Lifetime of Achievement: Susan K. Nolen-Hoeksema”Association for Psychological Science. 23 April 2013. Retrieved 2013-06-12.

^ “Reflecting on a Lifetime of Achievement”APS Observer26 (3). Association for Psychological Science. March 2013. pp. 12–13.

^ Jaffe, Eric (July–August 2013). “A Legend in the Study of Rumination”APS Observer26 (6). Association for Psychological Science. pp. 25–26.

^ “Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Volume 123, Issue 1 (February 2014)”American Psychological Association. Retrieved 2014-04-07.

^ Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan (2010). The Power of Women: Harness Your Unique Strengths at Home, at Work, and in Your Community. Times Books. ISBN 978-0805088670.

Wegner, D. M. (1989). White bears and other unwanted thoughts: Suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control. New York: Penguin. This is the book he wrote about his ground-breaking critique of Thought-Stopping. Wegner had a funny, accessible style of writing that has had a strong influence on how scientists write for the general public.

Wegner, D. M. (2011). Setting free the bears: Escape from thought suppression. American Psychologist, 671-680

Wegner, D. M., Schnider, D. J., Carter, S. III., White, L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5-13.

Wenzlaff, R. M., Wegner, D. M. (2000). Thought suppression. Annual Reviews in Psychology, 51, 59-91.

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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