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Thought Stopping in Recovery

Chapter 8: Thought Stopping for Recovery

Section 3: SEA's Tools for Recovery Lifestyle 
Self-Esteem Seekers Anonymous -

The SEA's Program of Recovery
By James J. Messina, Ph.D.

Thought Stopping for Recovery


What is thought stopping?

Thought stopping is the:

  • Process by which you are able to cease dwelling on a thought bothersome to you.
  • Procedure used to stop thoughts that are cues to acting impulsively or compulsively.
  • Process by which you are able to break the power of the cues that lead you into addictive or binge‑like behavior.
  • Substitution of a healthy thought for an unhealthy thought.
  • Act of deliberately turning to cues that break unhealthy patterns or habits.
  • Ability to discontinue obsessing on an idea, image, thought, fear or stimuli that is a cue for unhealthy behavior.
  • Practice of using mental energy in a positive way.
  • Technique used to reduce the negative impact of stress, unhealthy emotional cues, and fears.
  • Stress‑reduction technique that eliminates the overwhelming impact of stress and/or crisis events.

How does thought stopping work?

In thought stopping you:

  • Replace one thought for another, i.e., the thought of eating is replaced by the thought of exercising.
  • Hear “stop'' literally or figuratively whenever a negative or unhealthy thought arises, e.g., the desire for a cigarette appears and “stop'' is immediately heard.
  • Are able to break an obsessive, unhealthy thought pattern by substituting a healthy thought pattern.
  • Are able to replace a negative or unhealthy image with a positive visual image.
  • Find you divert or detour your mind from unhealthy or negative thoughts.
  • Clear your mind of all unnecessary and unhealthy thoughts that create stress or cues for acting out in unhealthy ways.

What are some thought‑stopping techniques?


Thought  Replacement: when an unwanted thought enters, immediately replace the thought with a healthy, rational one.


Yelling “Stop”: on thinking the unwanted thought, immediately yell STOP. The yell can be out loud or only in the mind. Continue to yell STOP until the unwanted thought ceases.


Substituting a Healthy Thought Pattern: if you have a tendency to think irrationally due to irrational beliefs, you can develop a rational pattern of thinking by challenging every thought that comes to mind, asking: Is this a rational thought? If not, what is irrational about it? What would be a rational replacement for this thought?


Replacement Visual Image: if you have a tendency to visualize negative images, replace these negative images by positive, healthy images.


Aversive Replacements: if you have a tendency to think of an unhealthy behavior in an acceptable manner, immediately replace these acceptable images with more honest images, i.e., thoughts of junk foods can be replaced by the words “poison,'' “unhealthy,'' “disgusting,'' “barf'' or “killers.'' Thoughts of cigarettes can be replaced by “cancer sticks'' or “coffin nails.''

What irrational beliefs block you from letting thought stopping work for you?

  • It's OK if I just think about it and do nothing about it.
  • What's the harm of thinking about it?
  • People will never know if I just think about it for a little while.
  • I've denied myself so much, why can't I just think about it once in a while?
  • You can't condemn me for thinking.
  • I never thought about it before I acted so why should I avoid thinking about it now?
  • It is too much of a battle to fight these thoughts. It's easier to give in and then start over again in the morning.
  • What difference does it make if I think about it?
  • It seems so silly to control my mind from having thoughts about it.
  • This feels like brainwashing and I think brainwashing is bad.
  • I don't have time to do this.
  • I don't need this in order to be successful in achieving recovery.
  • This is another far‑out psychological gimmick too stupid to try.

Directions for thought stopping

Step 1: Use relaxation training and breathing exercises to get yourself relaxed. It is important that you be relaxed as you proceed with this process.


Step 2: Record the word "stop" in alternating 1, 2, and 3‑minute intervals on a 30‑minute recording session. Using the stop recording in a relaxed state, think your unwanted thought and every time you hear stop, discontinue the thought. Go back to the thought again and cease the thought only when you hear stop. Do this for 30 minutes every night for two weeks or until you can consistently discontinue the thought when you hear stop.


Step 3: After you are trained to arrest your thought using the stop recording, you are ready to try arresting your thought by yelling stop out loud. Think of your unwanted thought for 30 minutes and yell stop to discontinue the thought. Once you arrest the thought, go back to thinking about it for a while, then yell stop again. Do this for 30 minutes each night for two weeks or until you are able to consistently discontinue the thought by yelling stop.


Step 4: After you have trained yourself to stop thoughts by yelling stop, you are ready to train your thoughts to end by whispering stop. For thirty minutes, repeat the process of dwelling on your unwanted thoughts but this time whisper stop to halt them. Do this 30 minutes nightly for two weeks or until you are able to consistently discontinue the thought by whispering stop.


Step 5: After you have trained yourself to discontinue unwanted thoughts by whispering stop, you are ready to train your thoughts to discontinue by thinking the word stop. Repeat the process of dwelling on your thought for 30 minutes, but this time simply think stop to discontinue unwanted thoughts. Do this for 30 minutes nightly for two weeks or until you are able to consistently discontinue unwanted thoughts by thinking the word stop.


The technique of either recording, yelling, whispering, or thinking stop can be effective in discontinuing unwanted thoughts. Ideally you could get to the point where simply thinking stop would work; however, use whichever mode works best for you and keep practicing. Remember to start the process in a relaxed state.


NOTE:  For more information on thought stopping, look at the chapter, Overcoming Fears in Tools for Personal Growth by James J. Messina, Ph.D.