Thought Stopping

Have you ever had a persistent thought you couldn’t stop thinking?  Of course you have; we all have.  It might have been a music tune that keeps running through your head.  Or it might have been a stressful thought like “Did I leave the iron on when I left home?”  Why do we have these thoughts that we can’t seem to get rid of?

It turns out that the brain doesn’t have an eraser.  That is, you can’t “unthink” a thought.  Try it, now.  whatever you think, don’t think of a slice of your favorite pizza.  What? You thought of it?  Your favorite?  You may have even seen it, smelled it and/or tasted it.  Now stop thinking of it.  

The easiest way to stop thinking about something is to move your attention to something else.  You replace the unwanted thought with another, more desirable thought.  This, too, is mindfulness.  

Do you really have control over your thoughts?  I don’t believe we do.  Most of my thoughts come to my conscious mind unwittingly.  I don’t want to think about a lecture next week, I’ve prepared for it as much as I can.  Now I’m only worrying.  

If we don’t control the thoughts we think then where do they come from?  I theorize that 90% of our thoughts come from our environment.  Suddenly we are humming a song, unaware that there was music playing in the elevator or in the store we just left.  Or someone passes by that is familiar and now we are thinking about a co-worker or cousin that we haven’t thought of for years.  I’m suggesting that most of the thoughts in our minds are not ours.  We didn’t choose them and they are not serving us.  

So, how do we clear our minds of these unwanted thoughts? Here are several tools I use frequently to stop the runaway train of thoughts.

Let’s explore some ways to stop thoughts.  I’m recommending only three of these, the first of which I will share with you but I encourage you to immediately ignore it.  You’ll understand why when we get to it.         

This first technique is one that you have heard about from family, friends, maybe teachers, and, unfortunately, from some therapists.  The best way to learn this is to watch a video demonstrating it.

So that technique’s not very effective.

Next, I’d like to introduce you to The Work of Byron Katie

In October of 2010 I spent a week at LAX, in a hotel, with 350 other seekers, to learn how to stop negative thoughts.  We were attending the School for the Work, taught by Byron Katie.  

Katie’s back story is that of a married woman, with two children, who went through a serious depression; a depression that lasted 8 years, the last two of which she spent in bed, sleeping with a gun under her pillow. 

Put into a residential program, Katie had an epiphany.  Waking one morning without thoughts, only an awareness of her 5 senses, Katie realized she was at peace, happy even, and realized that what was that, at the source of her pain and depression was her thoughts about herself and her life.  She spent the next week walking in the desert, and each time she noticed her mood dropping, she would seek out the thoughts and question them.  “Is this true?”

What Katie found was that thoughts aren’t true, they are just thoughts.  She developed a simple procedure, called 4 Questions, to guide people through this process she calls The Work.[2]  

I went to the School for the Work with the idea that I would be learning how to help others learn this process; but it was 10 days of working on my stuff, my own negative thoughts.  And work I did.  Every day, throughout the day, we challenged our thoughts.  Thoughts about Love, God, beauty, truth, needs, our bodies, food, homelessness, etc.  If we had a thought, we looked at it and questioned its veracity.  Wow!  Eye-opening, to say the least.  

In the School, we learned we learned a little ditty to anchor the technique.  “
“Find a problem, write it down, ask 3 questions, turn it around.”

The Work of Byron Katie

Find a heavy belief; i.e. causing you upset or pain.  Question this belief using the 4 Questions and the Turnaround.

1.  Is it True?      (Answer only Yes or No)

2.  Can you absolutely know that it is true?  (Again Yes or No)

3.  When you believe this thought, what happens?  How do you react?

This is the moment of inquiry.  Take time to inventory how believing this thought impacts your life. Does this thought bring peace or stress into your life?   What physical sensations and emotions arise when you believe those thoughts?  Allow yourself to experience them now.  What images do you see, of past and future, when you believe these thoughts?   What obsessions or addictions begin to manifest themselves when you are witnessing the images and believing the thought?” (Do you act out on any of the following: alcohol, drugs, credit cards, food, sex, television, etc.?  How do you treat that person, yourself, and others in this situation when you believe the thought?

4.  Who would you be without this thought?  Close your eyes and observe, contemplate, Who or what are you without that thought?  
Now imagine life if you didn’t believe this troubling thought?  Would you still be stressed?  Would you be happier?  

The Turnaround

Take the Belief and turn the thought around by imagining it’s opposite and see if the opposite belief is as true or truer than the original thought.  

Take, for example, the thought:  He hurt my feelings.
Using the Turnarounds:  With each of these find three specific, genuine examples of how each turnaround is true for you in this situation.

To the Self:  I hurt me

  • I hurt my pride when I didn’t stand up for myself
  • I hurt my sense of self-worth when I didn’t ask for help
  • I hurt myself by thinking that his anger was my fault and I deserved it

To the Other:  I hurt him.

  • I hurt him by allowing him to think it was okay to yell at me
  • I hurt him by refusing to talk about what happened
  • I hurt him by eliminating any contact from him

To the Opposite:  a)  he didn’t hurt me or b) He helped me.

  • He helped me begin to stand up for myself
  • He helped me understand that other people’s emotions are not my fault
  • He didn’t hurt me but the thought pointed out how sensitive I was to the thoughts of others

Katie is insistent that you must do the work on paper, as without it you may easily get distracted or off-topic.  Her website[3]has two handouts specifically for doing this process.  You can also get free facilitation doing the work on her site.  There is also now an App for the work.  Fair warning though; to be facilitated you must have completed the first worksheet Judging Your Neighbor.  This worksheet helps you come up with judgmental thoughts to do the Work on. 

You can find the worksheets on the link to the below.  You will also find videos of Katie helping people with the 4 Questions.

[2] Read Katie’s story in her first book “Loving What Is”


Published by Jim Hussey

I am a licensed professional counselor, working in a hospital setting. I have been a meditator and teacher for 47 years, a therapist for 28 years and married for 29 years. My secret vice is golf.

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