DBT Corner: Learning to Pause with the STOP Skill
Updated: Apr 29
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” -Viktor Frankl
I love this quote by Viktor Frankl. He speaks to the power that lies in being able to pause before reacting to our impulses. And by being able to do so, we can make choices that feel empowering and authentic to us. However, being able to pause when we are triggered or emotional can be difficult. People often share that they struggle to pause when they are feeling strong emotions and aren’t quite sure where to begin the process of stopping before reacting. This can be frustrating and upsetting, especially when there are painful, harsh, or long-term negative consequences to reacting impulsively in the moment.
DBT Therapy offers numerous tangible skills that clients can use in their everyday lives in order to start feeling better physically, mentally, and emotionally. It is one of the things I love most about DBT, as clients often share their wish for practical tools they can implement throughout their day in order to notice improvements in their well-being and relationships. One very powerful skill is the STOP skill. This skill is meant to be used in order for us to pause and reflect mindfully before taking action in all kinds of situations. Here, I will go through each step within the STOP skill and how it can be implemented.
The four steps in the STOP skill are:
STOP - Don’t react. Freeze. Don’t move. Don’t react to your emotions immediately.
TAKE A STEP BACK - This can be literal or figurative. Physically remove yourself from the triggering situation. Take a few deep breaths. Count to 10. Do anything that will stop you from reacting impulsively in the moment.
OBSERVE - Become mindful of what is happening physiologically, emotionally, and mentally. Explore what is upsetting or triggering you. Ask yourself what you want your intended outcome to be. How do you want to feel about yourself at the end of this situation? How do you want others to feel?
PROCEED MINDFULLY - Identify an approach or behavior whose outcome you will feel satisfied with. Identify a way of coping with the situation that will not escalate the crisis, or make things worse. Figure out a way to move forward that will lead toward long-term positive outcomes.
The STOP skill can be used in both small and significant situations. You can pause before taking a phone call and ask yourself if you are ready and able to engage in that conversation. You can pause before sending an angry text. You can stop before saying yes to a commitment or obligation and let someone know you will get back to them later. You can pause before yelling or insulting your partner. By finding ways to pause, you can develop awareness of your emotions, what they are communicating to you, and constructive ways in which to engage in a behavior that helps relieve a difficult emotion and avoid an unwanted, regrettable outcome.
In learning how to pause and reflect, it can help to develop awareness of the physiological cues that are alerting you to an impulsive reaction you may have. This can be the first step in learning to pause. Take a moment and ask yourself how your body reacts when you get angry, for example. Does your heart race? Do your fists clench? Do your muscles tighten? Does your body temperature rise? By taking note of these physiological cues, you can notice when these sensations arise during conflicts or arguments, and use them as your opportunity to pause and use a tool such as the STOP skill.
I also invite you to find some moments to pause within your day, as a means of practicing how to use the STOP skill. When can you find some moments to stop within your day and turn inward? What do you notice when you give yourself this opportunity? What kind of clarity does pausing offer you, both personally and in your relationships?
The STOP skill can be one of the most effective ways of learning how to manage difficult emotions and our reactions to them. As we build this skill, we can avoid making numerous snap decisions that we later regret. We can begin respecting our own boundaries along with proceeding thoughtfully in our interactions and relationships with others. Indeed, even the smallest pause can go a long way in achieving long-term harmony within our lives.