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Instant Calm: Thought-Stopping

Body+Soul, July/August 2006

During a stressful event, your thoughts can intensify the storm inside of you. For example, say you're about to give an important presentation to a large audience. You might find yourself worrying that you'll get the facts wrong. This kind of worst-case-scenario thinking can increase the rush of stress hormones, worsening your prespeech jitters.

A technique known as "thought-stopping" can help you halt these negative, obsessive thoughts, says Dr. Kenneth Ruggiero, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. The first step, he says, is to literally call a halt to this train of thought. If you're alone, say the word "Stop!" out loud. If you're around others, think it to yourself. Some people even find it useful to pinch themselves to disrupt those stressful thoughts, says Ruggiero. "This gives you a moment of distraction," he says, "and an opportunity to change your focus."

Next, choose a positive thought on which you'll focus instead, such as "I've given presentations before, and they went well" or "I know this material better than anyone in the audience." In doing so, says Ruggiero, you swap a negative, stress-inducing thought for a positive one.

Get more tips to feel an instant calm.