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Thought Stopping to Decrease Worry
David W. Kidder, Ph.D.

Many people think that their thoughts are uncontrollable. They are just there, and we just follow their lead wherever they may lead us. Psychologists have learned that thoughts are like any other behavior. We often have habits of thinking, and these habits can be changed like any other behavior pattern. Some people have the bad habit of worrying or obsessing about a subject that concerns them. For purposes of this article worry and obsessing will be labeled, “worry”. This worry often takes away from our quality of like and interferes with our relationships and productivity. It is often desirable to decrease the amount of time spent in worry behavior.

For those people who worry or obsess about things excessively there is a simple to learn but very difficult to apply skill called thought stopping. Negative, self-critical, fearful, or anger-provoking thoughts can be managed by saying to yourself, “STOP, I’m not going to think about that right now. I’ll think about that during my worry time.” Then set a time during the day when you will intentionally think about these ideas. A half hour in the early evening would be sufficient. During the day when you catch yourself engaging in the unhelpful thoughts, and you are alone, tell yourself out-loud, “STOP, I’m not going to think about this now. I’ll think about it later during my worry time.” Saying it aloud has more impact in that it tends to jar your mind out of the previous train of thought. When you are with others, just say it silently to yourself. If you like, you can jot down a note about what you were thinking so that you can remember to ponder it during your worry time. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between worry and problem-solving. Problem-solving involves coming up with alternative solutions, deciding on one, taking action, and evaluating the outcome. Worrying is running the tape of the negative thought pattern over and over without coming to a solution and action. If you are in doubt which it is, stop the thought pattern and put it off until your worry time. Then you can problem-solve or worry about that topic during that time.

Now these worry thoughts are very resistant to giving up hold on your mind. A metaphor I like to use is the wet sand on the beach. When you dig a hole in the wet sand at the water’s edge, the sand just rushes right back into the hole you just dug. These thoughts are like that. They just rush right back into your mind shortly after you tell them to get out. However, if on the beach you put a sand bucket in the hole, it keeps the sand from rushing back in. It blocks out the sand. Well, you must do a similar thing with your thoughts. You must replace the worry thoughts with other more pleasant, productive, neutral, positive, and/or distracting thoughts. Some people memorize positive affirmations, Bible verses, favorite poems. You can engage in some pleasant activity like relaxation exercises, reading, putting a puzzle together, knitting, working in the garden, watching TV, listening to music, or any other activity that distracts your mind and puts it in a positive, healthy mode.

It is difficult to get started with this skill unless you are very committed. You must first of all believe that you can intentionally and consciously change your thought patterns. Then when you have the good intention of doing it, you will realize that these thoughts are so automatic, that you don’t even realize when you are engaged in them. You may remember hours into the day that you have been worrying and forgot to practice thought stopping. In order to catch yourself and become more aware of when you are engaging in worry thinking, you will have to devise means of reminding yourself to check yourself. You could write yourself notes. This note might be some kind of symbol that no one else would understand. You could put these notes in your pocket, in your purse, in your brief case, on your desk at work, pasted around the house on the refrigerator, bathroom mirror, doors. You could set your watch to alarm every hour or more often if you have the right type of watch. You could ask a family member to help you by asking you during your day whether or not you are worrying. You could set your computer to remind you to check yourself during your work day. At first you won’t remember to check yourself. You must use these reminders to break into the stream of worry thoughts that have hold of your mind. When you catch yourself worrying, you must be committed to stopping it and switching gears, going on a different path.

Because you will make slow, gradual progress, it will be difficult to tell if any progress is being made at all. We often forget how we were doing weeks or months ago. Instead we compare our progress with how we did yesterday or several days ago. Then we may be discouraged because we don’t see much progress. So it might be a good idea to keep some kind of record of your progress. Keep a journal. In it record your estimation of how much of your day is spent in worrying or obsessing. Say you start out worrying 50% of the time. Then assess the percentage of time you spend worrying every day or every week. You might also record the number of times during your day that you catch yourself worrying. You might record the number of times you check yourself, and you aren’t worrying. Whatever you choose to record, review the past journal entries every once in a while to see how you are doing compared to weeks and months ago. You have likely developed this worry habit over many years. Don’t expect it to change quickly. Be patient and persistent. You should expect set backs. Your progress will not move in a straight line forward. You will likely worry more during stressful times, and when you are tired.


EMDR is a technique for reducing anxiety, especially anxiety caused by trauma.

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