Written by: Carl Puleo, LPCA
Imagine yourself standing in the middle of a river. But instead of water flowing around you, you are surrounded by flowing words, images, and emotions. This river represents the state of your mind. Sometimes the flow is nice and steady. Other times, the flow is choppy and difficult to handle as you are bombarded by waves of memories, upsetting emotions, and thoughts of worry. When your mind is in turmoil like a raging river, it is easy to feel as if your life is beyond your control. That is why I encourage my clients to STOP.
STOP is an acronym for Step away, Take a breath, Observe, and Proceed.
Continuing in the metaphor of a mental river, I encourage clients to imagine themselves stepping onto the shore. You do not have to wait for the river to be choppy and turbulent to do this exercise. In fact, I highly recommend practicing this when the mind is calm. Sometimes in order to step away mentally, one has to literally step away from a situation physically, such as going into another room or going for a walk. You can “step away” mentally too by thinking of something else or using your imagination. Whatever you need to do, the first step is to take a mental break, hitting the mental pause button, and stepping back away from your mind.
Take a breath
Breathing is important. I know that seems like an obvious statement. If you weren’t breathing you’d be dead, right? But breathing deeply, down into your belly is called diaphragmatic breathing. It goes like this: Breath deep and slowly through your nose. As you breathe you may have to pooch out your stomach in order for the air to go deep down into your lungs. Hold the breath for a few seconds and then slowly release it as if you were blowing on a pinwheel or blowing up a balloon. Do this two or three times as you mentally step away. Doing this will cause your body to naturally experience relaxation.
Now that you have distanced yourself from the flow of thoughts and emotions, and have taken a breath or two, you and your body ought to be ready to consider the content in the flow of your mind. Observing is not the same as engaging with the thoughts and emotions. Observing is about becoming aware of them. You might discover that you have feelings of frustration that you were not aware of before, but because of your practice of stepping back you are no longer affected by it and can acknowledge its presence. It is sort of like the story of the person who complained about not being able to see the forest because they were surrounded by so many trees. If the person would have pulled back to another vantage point they would have been able to observe their surroundings from a distance. Continue to practice deep belly breathing as you observe while stepping away.
After a few minutes of stepping away, breathing, and observing your flow of thoughts and feelings you will be able to return to whatever you were doing with a better sense of control and relaxation. If you find that you return once again to a turbulent state, you can always STOP again for a few more minutes until you are no longer carried away by the strong currents of thoughts and emotions. Doing the STOP practice once or twice a day will enable you to develop more self-awareness. With self-awareness comes self-control. With self-control comes more satisfaction which leads to a contented and happy life. If you are interested in learning more about STOP and other mindfulness coping skills to help you achieve a more contented and happy life see a counselor near you