Repetitive Thoughts

Imagine you’re on the 18th green playing the best round of golf that you have ever played. You are about to break the magical mark of 80 for the first time. You might think to yourself, “I’m going to miss this putt.” Usually, when you have similar thoughts, you end up missing the putt. Basketball players may have similar thoughts at the free-throw line as may baseball players at the plate. You might even have repetitive thoughts for a period of time prior to a big tournament or match: “I know I can beat John but he always seems to come through in the crunch and beats me.” Repetitive thoughts often occur in anxiety-provoking situations. If the repetition of these thoughts interferes with your ability to complete tasks, then you may become even more anxious. Anxiety hampers your ability to perform at optimal levels. This kind of vicious cycle can be difficult to break. Fortunately, you can control your thoughts with a technique called thought stopping.

Thought Stopping Theory

The theory behind thought stopping is that if you pair relaxation with anxiety-provoking thoughts, then both thoughts and anxiety decrease. In other words, if you associate thoughts that make you nervous with relaxation, then they will diminish. For example, at first repetitive thoughts might interfere with your daily routine six hundred times a day, but if you practice the thought stopping technique for one week, you may be able to reduce recurrent thoughts to only five times a day.  The goal is to gradually reduce the frequency, intensity and impact of intrusive thoughts over time.

Thought Stopping Practice

If you have recurring thoughts that cause anxiety, first say to yourself, “Stop.” You can say it out loud or to yourself, but this is a necessary first step because it introduces the idea that you should stop these thoughts. Next negate the repetitive thought using “I will not…,” or “I can not…” statements. Further, make a positive statement to yourself about a feeling which instills confidence. Begin such statements with phrases like, “I will…” or “I can…” For example, if your repetitive, intrusive thought is “I will fail,” replace the thought with, “I will not fail because I work hard and do what I need to do to succeed. You may want to label this thought as an “anxious thought” and tell yourself, “That’s just my anxiety talking.”  Take a cleansing breath both to relax you and to associate repetitive thoughts with relaxation. In order to maximize the benefits of thought stopping, practice it every time you have a recurrent thought. Otherwise, the technique will be less effective. With practice, you can reduce the frequency of repetitive thoughts over time.


Schwartz, J. M. (1997). Brain lock: Free yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive behavior. New York, NY: HarperCollins.