Unwanted thoughts can keep you from enjoying your life. Constantly thinking about something distressing, stressful, or negative can pull down your mood. Learning how to stop these unwanted thoughts can seem nearly impossible. Luckily, approaching the problem psychologically is a great way to conquer these unwanted thoughts. Approaching it psychologically will require a little bit of research and know-how before you can successfully banish unwanted thoughts. Psychological thinking aims to look at how human beings behave and think – and why. Understanding the underlying motives of our brains and thoughts is the first step toward conquering unwanted thoughts.

First of all, lots of psychological work has been done in this domain. The first inquiry into stopping unwanted thoughts was actually done by an author, not a psychologist. Dostoevsky, a Russian author said, “Try to avoid thinking of a white bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Give it a try – I’ll wait. See if you can not think of a white bear for a full minute.

Were you successful?

Chances are you weren’t. In fact, I’ll bet the only thing you could think of was white bears. Psychologists credit this to mental creations called “ironic thoughts.” Essentially, by setting a particular goal, like not thinking about white bears, only serve to reproduce the ideas. Does that mean it’s impossible to get rid of unwanted thoughts? Luckily, no. The only thing this proves is that actively trying to suppress unwanted thoughts will not work. In fact, actively trying to suppress specific thoughts will backfire immediately.

Instead, if you want to approach this problem psychologically you need to try something called thought-stopping. Instead of trying to banish a specific thought from your mind, you stop the thought and replace it with something more positive. We’ve already seen that actively trying to prevent certain thoughts from coming into your mind doesn’t work, so this is the next best option.

Here’s how it works. At first, when an unwanted thought appears in your mind you will learn to recognize it and physically yell, “Stop!” Eventually, you will learn to do this in your head so that this technique can be used in public places without embarrassing yourself.

The first step toward mastering this technique is to list all your stressful thoughts. List them from most stressful to least stressful. You will begin using the thought-stopping technique on the least stressful of the thoughts you wrote down.

Next, you sit or lie down in a private place and close your eyes. Visualize a situation where you may have this thought. Visualization is a very powerful tool and if you take it seriously, you will probably notice yourself feeling stressed out. For example, if one of your unwanted thoughts entails bombing a presentation at work, visualize this situation as clearly as possible.

Once you have a clear visual of the stressful thought you need to stop it. The best way is to startle yourself. There are two easy ways to do this. First, you could set an alarm for three minutes. Focus on your unwanted thought and when the alarm goes off shout, “Stop!” Some people like to stand up, snap their fingers, or clap their hands as well. All of these are cues to your brain to stop thinking. The other way to startle yourself is to record yourself shouting “Stop!” and intervals of three, two and one minute. Do the thought-stopping exercise and stop thinking about the unwanted thought whenever you hear your self-recorded voice shouting “Stop!”

Practice this over and over until merely saying “Stop!” in your head is enough to erase the unwanted thought from your mind.


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