A while ago my meditation teacher told me the story of an older man who was struggling with anger issues.
He had a teenage daughter (a difficult age for a young woman—just ask my parents) who, you know, would do what teenagers do—challenge him, not follow the rules, not listen to him, etc. When his daughter would do this, however, he would take the argument to a whole other level by exploding with anger and screaming at her. He would always regret his outbursts later, but felt unable to temper them in the moment.
So many of us struggle with similar problems. We are faced with difficult interpersonal interactions and make the situation much, much worse with our reactivity. Have you ever been cut off in traffic and flipped the guy off who did it? Or been told you did something wrong and gotten hostile and defensive? Or been the one who’s escalated an argument when someone else started it? Then you know what I’m talking about.
Oh, and if you’ve never experienced the above situations but are, you know, a human being—then you know what I’m talking about.
Mindfulness meditation offers a specific, practical solution for reactivity. In this context, I am defining reactivity as a negative, unskillful, impulsive reaction to a difficult situation. The solution is encapsulated in the acronym STOP.
S stands for Stop
The goal here is to catch yourself before you react. The guy cuts you off in traffic and before you do anything else, you say to yourself, Stop. Your coworker criticizes your work and you say to yourself, Stop. Someone starts yelling at you and you say to yourself Stop. Stop is a pause before reactivity. Stop is a moment of mindfulness and awareness before reactivity.
T stands for Take a Breath
Next, you take a deep breath. A good, solid, deep breath takes at least a couple seconds, if not longer. The breath serves to ground you in your body, ground you in the moment, and relax you a bit (when we feel upset, we start breathing more shallowly and in our chests, and deep breathing can trigger a calming response). The deep breath also serves to give you a few more precious seconds of pausing before reacting.
O stands for Observe
Observe is where the money is. In this step you are breaking a habit. Instead of listening to all the narratives in your head about how wrong the other person is and how right you are, you pay attention to your body (a place we typically ignore). Instead of listening to your thoughts, you listen to your body.
Drop down your awareness into your body and notice what’s happening. What do you feel? What sensations are arising? Maybe you feel tightness in your chest or tingling in your stomach? Maybe you hands are tightly gripped together?
Then, pay attention to the emotions behind these physical sensations. Yes, you probably feel angry, but there is likely something beneath the anger. Maybe you feel threatened or unsafe, or your feelings are hurt. Often when you understand the underlying emotion, the power of the anger diminishes.
P stands for Proceed
Last, you continue on with whatever you were doing.
How to use STOP
Written out, it may seem like this process will take forever (I can hear your responses now—I don’t have time to do this! I’m in the middle of an argument!), but with practice you can do the whole thing in a few seconds, in the moment.
Also, be kind to yourself about your progress. My meditation teacher told me that the man in the above story tried this technique a few times and one day thought, right as he was starting to yell at his daughter, “Here I go again…”
My meditation teacher felt this was a success. The man had still yelled, and still felt guilty later, but now he had a moment of awareness before reacting. Awareness is nothing to sneeze at. It is a wedge you can drive deeper and deeper to increase the space between trigger and reaction.
What about you? If you try this technique I would love to hear your experience in the comments!
Photo by Lucas Cobb
Tejes Pradeep says
Absoulutely great article again Elana. This tool youve mentioned came to me at the right moment where i was constantly getting into a bigger mess due to my poor ,immature and out of emotion reactions. This would come in handy. Thanks again 😀 cheers:D
Hey there, hmm…nice, but I think helpful to just regular minor usual anger responses, but lately I’ve been having a real problem with anger and it surprises me, cuz I’ve never had this problem before and didn’t get angry that easily or that often up until like 1-3 yrs ago and now in the past few months I can’t seem to recognize myself, whenever something is going “wrong” and I can’t do anything about it and it seems like it’s all working against me and stuff, or just generally when I feel helpless I start to get so angry it scares me, I feel like breaking someones face and yelling really loudly and blame everyone even remotely responsible. So I wonder, what to do about it…I’m not sure, if being on the pill isnt making it worse, I think it might, but it couldn’t cause it, I think. So i wonder, what suggestion do you have??
Hey San, I’m sorry to hear about your struggles. Your question makes me wonder what is causing your anger, first, since that would help inform the solution (especially if this is a new problem). If situations in your life are making you feel helpless and frustrated, I can see where you would get angry as a protective mechanism, since it’s often easier to feel angry than helpless. The first step for you would be to investigate what is causing you to feel helpless, and if there are problems in your life you need to address to help you to feel better.
Hmm I guess, what angers me the most are things at home, the situation is not that great and I just really want to move out (I’m 23), except finding job is not so easy these days, cuz I dislike the atmosphere at home (my mom is on all kinds of pills and is totally nuts and often in very unpleasant mood and it’s just too stressful for me) and the way my parents live and the fact that they are incapable of changing in any way (be it – don’t talk to me in the morning when I’m in the hurry-e.g. I really don’t need your stupid questions when I have 3 mins to catch the bus, or clean up after yourselves, cuz your adults for God’s sake or million other things that frustrate me- that I just cannot do anything about, cuz nothing works) and it makes me feel helpless and anytime there is a situation that makes me feel helpless I tend to over react either start crying or get really angry. And I even remember this happening to me occasionally when I was a child). I don;t even really have anyone to talk to about my problems or much anyone for anything in general). I guess it’s just a little too much for me. i just don’t know what to do about the anger thing…I’m able to calm myself down sometimes, but as soon as something else goes wrong I flip.
Barbro Olsson says
Great photo and I love how you put different menings to the letters!
I have been applying in My own life and teaching the Alexander Technique for more then 25 years.
One of the Main principals in the AT-Work is using STOP. We add a few things that makes it even more powerful but your description is wonderful. Thanks ar LOT! I Wish you a Happy and Healthy New Year. Much love from Barbro in Sweden