At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had an argument with a loved one about appropriate precautions one ought to take in order to maintain health and safety during the nationwide shutdown. I recall this argument very vividly, because this was a moment in which I “lost my cool” with this person. Ordinarily, I am able to automatically shift into using my distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness skills (thanks to a lot of practice), but in this instance I came into the conversation in emotion mind and with a plethora of vulnerabilities. I had not slept well the night before, I had been feeling very isolated in my life, and I felt very scared about the pandemic and all the changes it would bring. When I realized my pitch about the importance of maintaining health and safety was not being absorbed in the way I would like, my emotions took control and I lashed out at my loved one, scolding her for her decisions and recent behaviors during this crisis.
In hindsight, I certainly would have benefitted from utilizing the STOP skill, one of my favorites from the DBT distress tolerance module. When emotion mind takes over, we often act impulsively without thinking. When we react impulsively, as I did with my loved one, we do not have time to use skills and reconnect with our wise mind. To be able to use skills, such as the interpersonal effectiveness skills needed for effective communication in my situation, we first need to stop ourselves from reacting. To help with staying in control, use the STOP skill.
The STOP skill consists of the following sequence of steps: Stop, Take a step back, Observe, and Proceed mindfully. The STOP skill helps us refrain from acting impulsively on our emotions and making a difficult situation worse. This skill helps us resist acting on the first impulse to act (Stop); Take a step back and detach from the situation; observe to gather information about what is going on; and then Proceed mindfully (by evaluating the most effective option to take, given the goals, and finally following that option):
When you feel your emotions are about to take control, stop! Don’t react. Don’t move a muscle! Just freeze. Freezing for a moment helps prevent you from doing what your emotion wants you to do—to act without thinking. Stay in control. Remember, you are the boss of your emotions
When you are faced with a difficult situation, it may be hard to think about how to deal with it on the spot. Give yourself some time to calm down and think. Take a step back (in your mind and/or physically) from the situation. Get unstuck from what is going on. Take a deep breath. Continue breathing deeply as long as you need to do this (to reduce extreme emotion mind quickly) until you are back in control. Do not let your emotion control what you do. Remember that you are not your emotion. Do not let it put you over the edge.
Observe what is happening around you and within you, who is involved, and what other people are doing or saying. To make effective choices, it is important not to jump to conclusions. Instead, gather the relevant facts so as to understand what is going on and what the available options are. Use your mindfulness skills of observing and nonjudgmentalness.
Ask yourself, ‘What do I want from this situation? What are my goals? What choice might make this situation better or worse?’ Ask your wise mind how to deal with this problem. Being mindful is the opposite of being impulsive and acting without thinking. When you are calm, stay in control, and have some information about what is going on, you are better prepared to deal with the situation effectively, without making it worse.