Have you noticed that our emotions can be as volatile as the weather? For days there may be a run of blue skies, only to be violently interrupted by a monumental storm.
In a single hour our feelings can swing from exhalation, to a devastating low. Like extremes in climate, such fluctuations can be exhausting. While we can’t control the weather, we can learn to change how we react to our thoughts and feelings.
The STOP technique
Much has been written about mindfulness. In a nutshell, it comprises of techniques and practices designed to bring our complete attention into the present, to experience each moment. When we are in the present moment, we are not worrying about what may happen in the future or reliving what we’ve done in the past.
STOP is a practice encouraging awareness that can be used at any time of day. For example, it can be a ritual when sitting down to work or before beginning to cook dinner. It can also be useful first aid when confronted with overwhelming emotions such as fear, anxiety or hurt.
You can use STOP as a regular practice to cultivate greater awareness by following these four steps:
- Stop what you’re doing.
- Take a breath.Breathe in through your nose and slowly exhale through your nose or mouth. Stay focused on your breath until its pattern is regular and calm.
- Observe your thoughts, feelings and body.Take a note of what you’re thinking and feeling. Let go of any thoughts (judgements such as “I’m hopeless”) and instead name the feeling (I feel scared/bored/angry). Simply name the feeling with a single word, in the same way your might name a colour or tool. Check in with your breath to make sure it is still slow and regular. Take note of how your body feels. Is there any pain or tension in your chest, abdomen, hands or feet? Slowly scan your body and breathe into any spots that feel uncomfortable. When you are feeling centred in your body and aware of being in the present moment, shift your attention to your immediate environment. Use your senses to become aware of any objects that are around you.
- Proceed/make a plan. Now you are centred in your body and aware of your environment, what’s most important right now? What do you intend to do in this next moment? Make a plan and proceed.
How to use STOP when feeling overwhelmed
When you regularly practice STOP at more mundane times during your day, it’s an effective way to let go of distractions and become focused and productive. But STOP is also a powerful tool when experiencing strong emotions. The steps are exactly the same.
- Stop. Mentally step back from what you’re thinking or doing.
- Take a breath. Focus on slow, even breaths. Feel the air enter your body through your nostrils, its journey into your lungs and the slightly warmer air exhale through your nose or mouth as it touches your nose or lip.
- Observe your thoughts, feelings and body. Your mind might be whirring at a hundred miles an hour but as you concentrate on your breath and it becomes regular, your mind too should slow down enough for you to observe your thoughts. Let go of judgemental thoughts and instead simply observe and name them. These are just thoughts and feelings – they don’t own or control you. Next check in with your body. Scan it from toe to head, looking for areas of pain or tension. Each time you become aware of an area of discomfort, use your calm breathing technique to release the tension.When your mind has calmed, you’ve been able to observe your feelings and connect with how your body feels, then take in your surroundings. For example, if there’s a cup in front of you – look at it, be aware of the colour and shape, feel it and note the texture and temperature.
- Proceed/make a plan Now you’ve observed your thoughts and emotions, become aware of your body and taken note of your surroundings, try to re-engage in what you were doing before your emotions were triggered. Acknowledge how you are feeling but stay centred in your body. Have you been able to let go? If the triggers are still active, make a plan on how you can resolve the situation or get help. Is there anything you can do right now that will ease the situation, such as go for a walk or talk to a friend? Can you let go of the feeling or negative thought s in this moment but acknowledge what you need to follow up on later? Is this a reoccurring experience, which could benefit from professional help?
Practicing mindfulness and the STOP technique
Treat this exercise as an experiment. Get curious about where you can apply the STOP experiment in everyday life. Some people find it’s a valuable ritual before diving into the maelstrom of a work, or use it to unwind before bed in the evening.=
With regular practice, the STOP technique may make you less reactive to volatile situations, as well as providing a ‘first aid’ tool when overwhelming feelings arise.