When something’s bothering you, it can be difficult to stop thinking about it.
Of course, our thoughts are useful tools that help us navigate our way through the world. But sometimes, they can run out of control, especially when something is bothering us.
We asked a group of experts for their tips and advice when it comes to the best ways to stop thinking about something. Here is what they said.
Stop Trying Not To Think About It!
Raffi Bilek, Therapist and Director of The Baltimore Therapy Center
Trying to stop thinking about something by not thinking about it is a losing strategy. It’s very hard to force your mind away from a thought.
Instead, it’s much more effective to pick a different thought to focus on. For this to work well, it should be a pleasant thought – one that’s enjoyable to think about.
So draw up some memories from your life – a scene you can play in your head for a minute or two – that would bring you joy. Maybe your graduation or wedding? A favorite holiday memory?
When a thought comes to mind that you want to move on from, substitute this scene in instead.
Learn To Accept Your Thoughts
Evan Haines, MA, Co-founder of Alo House Recovery Centers
The surest way to not stop thinking about something is to try to stop thinking about it.
Try it: whatever you do, don’t think of a pink elephant! It’s impossible.
A lot of our thoughts stem from our unconscious. This is true in the dream state, but it is also true in the waking state.
Some would argue, the Jungians among us, that our unconscious will show us what we need to see, whether we like it or not. So the trick becomes understanding what that meaning is.
For the Jungians, they would also point to the collective unconscious. Clearly, there is a disturbance in our social lives right now. We live in very strange times. And there is a connection between our personal ‘shadow,’ another name for the unconscious, and the collective shadow.
In both cases, the task becomes sort of ‘making friends’ with it. We need to learn to accept our dark side.
Until we learn to accept, integrate and sufficiently deal with our shadow, we’re going to experience all kinds of invasive, often very negative thoughts.
There is also the school of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which has shown that we can indeed replace thoughts and sort of guide and influence our consciousness.
This is true, too, demonstrated in the research. If much of our ‘shadow’ comes from our limbic brain — our fight or flight functioning, which is concerned with survival, with getting what we need, keeping others from taking it, etc. — we can learn to use our prefrontal cortex — our executive functioning, the seat of communication and future planning — to go back and soothe the limbic brain, to ‘tell’ it that everything is OK, we have everything we need, no one is going to take anything from us.
So in this way, we are able to replace fearful, anxious thoughts with calmer, more reassuring ones.
Let The Thought Be
Melissa Snow, Certified Life Coach
I work with many of my clients on how to get over their past, which often includes letting go of an ex.
I watch my clients ruminate on these relationships. What happened? Where did I go wrong? Should I not have said that? Did I ask for too much? Was I not enough?
Many times, women come to me because they want to stop thinking about him, they want to move on, they just simply don’t know how.
The best advice I have if you want to stop thinking about something is to let yourself think about it.
I know that sounds counterintuitive, but have you ever noticed that every time you tell someone ‘Don’t look now…’ the first thing they do is look?!
It’s the same concept – the more you try to will yourself not to think about something, the more you will think about it.
I encourage my clients to just let the thoughts be there – to recognize them as thoughts – and to see that they are not actually facts – they’re just words in their brain.
When you can look at thoughts that way, they tend to have a lot less power. Thoughts and feelings work much like the tide – if you let them come in, they will likely flow back out soon enough.
However, if you try to fight them, and force them out, they’ll just keep trying to come back in.
Give Yourself Permission To Think About It
Anne Russey, Licensed Professional Counselor and founder of Anne Russey Counseling
Allow yourself to think about the thing you want to stop thinking about.
This might sound counter-productive, but the more we tell ourselves to stop thinking about something, the more time we tend to spend thinking about that thing.
Sometimes if we give ourselves permission to think about that thing, then we may have an easier time letting go of it.
If you have a tendency to get stuck, or feel like your thoughts about something are consuming too much time and energy, it may be helpful to set some limits for yourself.
Try setting a timer for 10 minutes and tell yourself you can think about that thing until the timer goes off, and then you must find something else to do.
It may be helpful to have the next task in mind before you set your timer, so that you know exactly what your next step is when your time is up.
Secondly, focus your attention on something else. Distraction can be a powerful and useful coping skill to help us stop thinking about something.
If you find yourself fixated on a thought, or stuck in a mental loop, try shifting your focus to something else. Sometimes engaging our senses can help draw us out of our thoughts and back into the present moment.
Try focusing on the senses engaged when you mindfully eat a piece of dark chocolate. How does the wrapper feel in your hands? What sounds you hear as you open the chocolate? What does it look like in the palm of your hand? How does it taste? Can you smell the richness of the cocoa?
For others, engaging our mind in an internal game of categories may be helpful in pulling us out of the mental loop. Can you work your way through the alphabet from A to Z making a grocery list of items that begin with each letter? Now can you do it going backwards?
These strategies can be helpful in pulling our focus away from the thing we’re trying to stop thinking about, and allow us an opportunity to choose where to put our mental energy instead.
Thirdly, talk to someone else about the thing you want to stop thinking about.
If no amount of self help is working to help you stop thinking about something, or you’re experiencing intrusive or scary thoughts, it may help to talk to a someone.
Sometimes the act of speaking our thoughts out loud can be enough to take away the power they can feel like they have over us.
Talking to a trusted friend, partner or counselor can help us sort out what other steps may be needed to help us stop thinking about something.
Become Present And Get Closer To Your Emotions
Katherine Chan, Psychotherapist, Yoga and Meditation Teacher
First, notice if your thinking has been helpful and purposeful, or if it’s rumination.
Rumination is when one goes over the subject again and again without much change in understanding or resolution.
• Have I been thinking the same thoughts over and over?
• Has there been any notable changes in my understanding of the situation? Of myself and my values?
• Has it allowed me to move forward with my life in a positive way?
• Do I feel stuck in a cycle?
Often, one is thinking about something again and again because there are emotions that they don’t want to feel.
To stop thinking about something, you have to pause, become present and get closer to the underlying emotions.
• To pause, find physical and mental ways of grounding yourself in the present moment.
Some examples are:
• Name at least 6 things you see in the room
• Take a few slow, deep belly breaths
• Feel your feet on the ground or clench and release your fists a few times.
• Then, check in with how you feel by dropping down into your body and noticing the physical sensations –
• Gently/kindly scan your body. How is your breath – deep and easeful or constricted and shallow? Notice your throat, chest and stomach areas.
• Stay with the sensation that you notice the most. What is it telling you? What emotions show up in that part of the body — often fear and sadness. Notice if you want to get away from the sensation or change it.
• Instead, nurture that part of you that feels deeply. Offer your loving attention, being with yourself the way you would be with a dear friend, child or pet
• Offer some kind words to yourself (for example, “I see that you’re hurting, and I’m here with you”.)
• Offer a loving gesture of touch (for example, a hug, holding your own hand).
When one can simply be with the underlying emotions, underneath the thinking, your mind will naturally soften out of rumination and change can occur.
Ask Yourself If The Thought Is Helpful Or Not
Kathryn Schwab, Founder of Tons of Goodness
Thinking about something repeatedly and ruminating is a pretty common experience.
Here is some advice to help stop these thoughts:
Write it down – It might seem ironic to take the time to write down the thoughts in order to stop thinking about them. But, it often helps people to write down their thoughts to get them out of their heads and onto a piece of paper.
It helps to tell yourself that when you write them down, they are now out of your head and you can take a much-needed break.
Problem solve – Another option for thoughts that won’t go away is to problem solve.
What is it that you can’t stop thinking about? Is there something that needs to be done? Ask yourself what steps can be taken to solve the problem or thought you are concerned about.
It can help to talk it out with a family member or friend.
Physical movement – Engaging in physical activities, such as walking, yoga, or weightlifting can help distract you from repetitive thoughts.
Meditation – Practicing mindfulness can help you to recognize the repetitive thoughts and to draw attention back to the present moment.
Focus On What You Can Control
Sharon Grossman Ph.D., Psychologist and Success Coach
It’s not just about how to stop thinking about something but how to think differently about it.
Asking yourself questions like, ‘what would my friend Marsha say about this?’ can be helpful (if Marsha is a rational person!).
Sometimes, I tell clients to refocus their mind from things that are out of their control to things they have more control over.
Other times, it’s about focusing on what is in your best interests. Thoughts and feelings are linked, so if we change our thinking, we can shift how we feel.
So, ask the question, ‘is this thought helpful?’ And if it isn’t, ask, ‘what is a more helpful thought?’
When we focus on stopping a thought, it can be nearly impossible, but to help us be more present, focused meditation is a helpful technique that retrains the mind to slow down.
Through this practice, we can ‘notice’ our thoughts rather than having them drive us.
Be Prepared To Acknowledge Your Thoughts
Muriel Casamayor, Psychotherapist
When working with individuals that experience ruminating thoughts, it is important to help them understand the core of their thoughts.
By being able to acknowledge your thoughts, it will make it easier to then stop by being able to talk about it with someone you know (for example, a close friend, therapist or family member).
If your ruminating thought has been externalized, it is easier to break it down and challenge it, especially if it is negative.
Sometimes, ruminating thoughts appear due to an increase in stress. Practicing mindfulness exercises can help with self-regulation and staying grounded.
Here are some examples of mindfulness techniques: Perform one minute of deep breathing, then identify five things you can see, four things you can smell, three things you can hear, two things you can taste and one thing you can touch.
Take The Time To Find The Core Meaning Of Your Thought
Kim McGuiness, Therapist and Counselor at Get Centered Counseling Coaching and Wellness
In order to understand how to stop thinking about something we have to first define the thought itself.
Sometimes a continuation of thinking about something can be associated with anxiousness or worry and sometimes the continuation of thought is more aligned to rumination.
Understanding the thought is important so that we can better understand the core meaning of the thought itself.
When a thought is more worry-oriented, it is focus is on the future with concern of danger ahead.
When a thought is more deep or ruminating, it is concerned with loss, disappointment and sadness.
Once we find the core meaning of the thought we can take the following steps to “thought stop”.
• Acknowledge, accept and name the thought: If I offer you a story of a pink dinosaur and then ask you to stop thinking about the pink dinosaur what are you thinking about?
By telling ourselves to stop thinking about something we are actually telling ourselves to think about it! Instead, accept the pink dinosaur and determine what makes the thought present in your mind.
• Question the thought: Is it realistic to think there are pink dinosaurs? Am I basing my thoughts about a pink dinosaur on facts or feelings? Do I have evidence there are pink dinosaurs? Am I having this thought out of habit or do facts support it?
• Evaluate if the thought is impacting your behavior: How is thinking about pink dinosaurs interfering with my life?
• Create an alternate thought through an allowing statement: It can be difficult to let go of the pink dinosaur thought and I allow the thought while I move forward with other thoughts and behaviors that support my life’s purpose.
‘Thought stopping’ takes practice and can require help from a licensed professional if the habit of the thought has become one’s norm.
Using a Cognitive Behavioral approach to therapy, a counselor can help you objectively see the patterns you have created and strategies to stop thinking about something over time.
Think About Something Else In Positive Terms
Dan Sneider-Cotter, Licensed Therapist and Writer for Choosing Therapy
When you want to stop thinking about something the best advice from behavioral psychology is to think about what you want to do instead. It sounds simple but here’s how it works.
Imagine you are walking with a bowl of soup and carefully balancing it. If someone yells to you, “don’t trip!” then you will immediately picture yourself tripping, stumbling, and will lose track of how to carefully balance that bowl you are holding.
Instead, if that same person yells, “keep breathing and focus on walking slowly” you are much more likely to remain calm and steady.
So, instead of focusing on how to ‘stop’ thinking about something you need to think about something else in positive terms.
For example, I want to think about what songs help me relax, what friends I can call, or what food I like to cook.
By focusing on positive and actionable ideas, you are much more likely to avoid thoughts about the topic you seek to avoid.