How many of us have reacted to being overwhelmed, stressed or angry and ultimately regretted our response? We’ve all felt strong emotions and can think of experiences when they’ve taken over. So how do we avoid directing unwanted emotions at the people we care about?

As a registered clinical counsellor with my own private practice, I’ve seen many clients who want to know how to process strong feelings. Here’s one technique I recommend for dealing with stressful situations.

The STOPP technique

The STOPP technique can help you understand your emotions before you act on them. It reduces the uncomfortable physical experiences that occur when you’re feeling stressed and helps you feel calmer so you can deal with your feelings in a more controlled way. 

S – Stop

When you recognize that something isn’t right with how you’re feeling, just stop. This is an important moment. Before you do, or say anything, recognize that you may be under stress or not feeling normal, and hit the pause button.

How do you know when something is off? Humans have a natural ability to sense when something is wrong. Sometimes this is a gut feeling. Other things to watch out for or pay attention to are:

  • Withdrawing, ‘zoning out,’ or feeling like you are on autopilot
  • Physical sensations and experiences like:
    • A hot feeling in the belly
    • Tightening of the fists
    • Tension in the body and head
    • Numbness
    • Weakness in your arms or legs
    • Narrowed vision or perception
  • A general sense of being overwhelmed

T – Take a Breath

After you’ve stopped, take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Repeat a few times. 

A specific type of breathing that may be beneficial is called box breathing. You can try it anytime, and it doesn’t have only to be used during the STOPP technique.

Box breathing

It’s a technique that Navy SEALs practice to help them think clearly in difficult situations. It works with a four-by-four rule. You inhale through the nose while counting to four, then hold your breath until the count of four, exhale through your mouth to the count of four, then hold your breath for a count of four before inhaling again. 

Repeat at least three times or until you notice a change in how you feel.

If taking a breath doesn’t work for you, here are two other alternatives to try.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Pick any muscle group. The shoulders are commonly used here. Raise your shoulders up toward your ears and squeeze them as tight as you can. Hold it for about 10 counts, and then relax. Repeat 3 or more times.

As you do this, focus on the feeling of your muscles moving from tension to relaxation. You can also use your arms and hands or do low squats. This technique helps you to move from a state of being overwhelmed to being more present and grounded.

The 5-4-3-2-1 method

Simply look around the space you’re in and say, either in your head or out loud, the name and colour of 5 different things you see. It’s an easy way to bring your attention to something other than your strong emotions and gets you back to thinking more clearly.

Next, name 4 items you can feel (i.e., the shirt on your skin, the glasses on your face, your feet in your shoes), 3 sounds you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. However, you don’t need to complete the whole list. Often, naming 5 things you can see is good enough.

O – Observe

When you give yourself a moment to pause and slow down, you feel more grounded and can reflect on the situation. Now observe what’s happening inside you and around you.

Ask yourselves:

  • What’s making me react? 
  • What am I thinking?
  • What am I physically feeling?

These questions help you study your current situation and look at yourself from a place of curiosity. Notice what’s made you feel this way and how you’re reacting to it physically and mentally. 

P – Pull back

This step is about seeing the bigger picture. Ask yourself, what’s a different way I can think about this? Or how would someone else handle this situation? 

Another way to think about ‘Pull Back’ is to see yourself as a character in a movie or a story. What kind of character do you want to be? How would that character react to what’s happening and how you’re feeling?

This step allows you to question your personal point of view, find a more open-minded way of thinking and more ways to respond to the situation.

P – Practice what works

Now that you’ve gone through the steps, you’ve stopped, taken a breath, observed yourself, and pulled back to see the bigger picture. You’re ready to do what works. You’re ready to act in the way that best represents who you are without being controlled or overwhelmed by your emotions. 

The more you practice STOPP, the better you’ll become at recognizing your emotions and responding. Practicing STOPP may also help you feel calmer and more reflective in your day-to-day life.

Emotions serve a purpose

Overwhelmed man sitting at desk

Emotions are a very important part of being human. Think of them as a tool or a kind of gauge that shows you what’s important and can help inform the decisions that you make. Intense emotions are an indicator that something matters to you, and this is true for all emotions, from happiness and joy to anger, sadness and fear. 

The benefits of understanding your emotions

Understanding your emotions allows you to have more control over your reactions and facilitates your ability to choose how to respond to situations in alignment with your core values and desires.  It also improves your empathy for others. If you can’t recognize or understand your own emotions, it’s difficult to understand what another person, like your partner, parent or child, is feeling. 

Just like using the emergency oxygen mask on an airplane, you need to put your own mask on first before you can help others. When you better understand your own emotional well-being, you’ll be better able to support the people you care about. 

A clearer understanding of your emotions will also help reduce your stress levels. Research shows that suppressing or avoiding emotions contributes to physical and mental health issues. Emotional well-being is an important part of mental health and as important as exercise is for physical health. 

Need support? 

If you’re interested in changing your relationship with your emotions or find yourself repeating a pattern in your life that you can’t seem to change on your own, I encourage you to give counselling a try. It can help to have someone to talk to who has an understanding of the issues you’re facing and the techniques to help you overcome them or change them.

The Canadian Men’s Health Foundation’s MindFit Toolkit is another great resource that can help, providing resources, information and counselling services to improve your mental health.

If you’ve tried the STOPP technique or have another technique that you’d like to share, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

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