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Taking Control Of Our Thoughts

Our thoughts can be very powerful and influential on how we feel and experience the world we live in.  We can often find ourselves in a rut when we allow our negative and unhealthy thought patterns to take over, which prevents us from being able to effectively cope with a stressful or uncomfortable situation.  For some of us, it can be easy to get caught in a pattern of rumination or catastrophizing when we are under stress however that type of thinking only makes things worse.  If we can learn to acknowledge our thoughts and direct them in healthy and realistic ways, our stress can be managed more effectively.  So how can we do that? 

There are numerous approaches and strategies that have been found to be effective in managing our thoughts.  One popular and easily applicable strategy comes from the cognitive behavioral model: thought stopping.   Just like its name, thought stopping involves conscious awareness and effort in putting a stop to a negative or unhealthy thought when it occurs and replacing these thoughts with positive and healthier thought patterns.  Here are steps we can take to accomplish this:

  1. Recognize and acknowledge when you are engaging in negative or unhealthy thought patterns. This technique will not be effective without awareness of the ineffective or problematic thought process that takes place.
  2. Once you notice your unhelpful and negative thoughts, visualize a STOP sign in your mind or yell STOP to yourself.  This step promotes interruption of the problematic pattern.
  3. If talking to yourself is not successful, try using a tactile aid to help interrupt your thoughts.  For example, wearing a rubber band on your wrist and flicking it whenever you are thinking negatively can help to block and distract your bothersome thoughts.
  4. Once you have blocked your thoughts, replace them with positive images or thought patterns that are healthier and more rational. Thought replacement can occur by challenging each negative thought by asking yourself whether your thought is accurate, realistic, or rational and then identifying or visualizing an alternative thought that is healthier and positive. 
  5. PRACTICE! Just like most skills, this technique requires repetition, patience, and practice in order for it to become easier and rewarding.  

This critical skill has been shown to help individuals manage impulsive and compulsive behaviors more effectively as well as minimize the impact that stress and traumatic events have on our mental and physical health.  If we are able to learn how to make our thoughts work for us instead of against us, we will find that we can experience a significant decrease in stress, depression, anxiety, and physical illness.    

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT