How To Stop Intrusive Thoughts: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Thought Replacement and Visual Substitution

Friday, March 07, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Treatment Techniques

Thought replacement is one of the most widely-used techniques in cognitive behavioral treatment. It is also one of the most self-explanatory techniques under the cognitive behavioral umbrella. What you do is...replace your thoughts. 

This is often easier said than done, especially when you have a set of scary thought patterns or negative self talk cycles that have become persistent over time. People who experience the same thoughts over and over again have a more difficult time with replacement, simply because the thoughts tend to become a part of their daily experience. Thought replacement aims to change that by encouraging a different response when the automatic pattern begins. 

Let's check out an example.

Let's say every time you get home after a stressful day at work, you:

  1. Look at your dog and think "Why did I buy a Chihuahua? This dog is an idiot. I need to get rid of him." 
  2. Close your eyes and picture punting him out of the room. (As an interesting caveat, disdain for household pets seems to increase after children enter the picture, likely due to the extra stress and workload.)

While your dog may in fact be an idiot--I have no idea, he isn't my dog-- the fact remains that the kids love him and you have decided to keep him. Therefore, thoughts about IQ may not be relevant, or productive. You can continue to think negatively, leading to more stress as you begin to resent the animal and the miniature horse he rode in on, or you can change your thoughts associated with the dog. 

It's not like you can make him any smarter.

The trick is finding a thought that is reasonable and appropriate. Trying to convince yourself that he's the best dog in the world won't work. Don't lie to yourself. Find something you believe and every time a negative thought arises, replace it immediately.

The next time you enter the house, when that little ankle-biter approaches, you start to hear the same old mantra. 

Instead, of kicking him, you immediately:

  1. Consciously replace the your normal visual of punting his ass over the fence with one of the kids hugging him.
  2. Replace the thought, "This dog is an idiot, I need a new one," with, "The kids love him, he doesn't eat much and I have decided to keep him. He will grow on me." 
  3. Repeat every time you come home until you believe it.

The funny thing is, the more you replace the thought or visual, the more he will grow on you. Changing your thoughts has the uncanny ability to change your mind and reduce your stress.

While this is a lighter example, it works the same way with more serious thoughts like going crazy ("the fact that it bothers me means I am still lucid") or social anxiety fears about being out in public ("even if I do freak out, I won't ever see these people again").

More persistent visuals, such as those present in post-traumatic stress disorder, can be substituted with a calming picture. If you have trouble picturing it inside your head, keep a photo of a serene beach--or whatever mellows you out--in your pocket or saved in your phone to help you. Word mantras or positive affirmations can be written down and carried as well, especially if tracing the letters with a finger helps to calm you. 

The more you hear a positive voice inside your head, the less you hear the more negative ones. We can only hear so many people talking at once. 

Replacing unwanted thoughts and images can make you feel better. Good news for Fido.

Besides, that tiny bastard is kinda cute.

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Topic-Relevant Resources

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns

Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior
Useful information and tools for addressing obsessive or scary thoughts and the behaviors that go with them.

The PTSD Workbook: Simple, Effective Techniques for Overcoming Traumatic Stress Symptoms
A useful tool in exploring personal trauma, with an emphasis on healing.

From Panic to Power: Proven Techniques to Calm Your Anxieties, Conquer Your Fears, and Put You in Control of Your Life
Techniques for reducing anxiety and living a happier, healthier life.

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
New techniques for mindfully altering the wiring of your own brain, leading to increased happiness.