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Key Takeaways:

  • STOP is a distress tolerance skill, which helps people manage emotional distress.
  • STOP stands for stop, take a step back, observe, and proceed mindfully.
  • Using this skill can help individuals survive an emotional crisis.

In life, unexpected and unpleasant things can happen. You may find yourself in a situation that makes you feel confused, anxious, vulnerable, and maybe even angry. This psychologically distressed state of feeling is often called a crisis, and when you’re in one, it can be easy to frantically search for a solution to alleviate the stress. We often wish we could just stop it, and then we’d be fine. While it takes more than willpower to “just stop” our emotional response, the DBT STOP skill is a skill that can be beneficial to our well-being. If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you wish you could stop before you act, then this article will be very useful.

What is the STOP Skill in DBT?

The STOP skill in DBT is a distress tolerance skill, which helps an individual manage emotional distress, whether perceived or actual. By applying distress tolerance skills to stressful situations, we can make it through the incident without making things worse for ourselves and others. These skills also allow us to cope with stressful situations in a healthy manner, rather than resorting to destructive means.

The STOP skill is helpful when we are confronted with stressful situations wherein we may feel the pressure to make decisions and find solutions to our problems as quickly as possible. It can benefit us to stop, slow our racing minds down, and make healthier and more informed decisions.

Here is the STOP skill and how it works:

S - Stop

When it feels like your emotions are starting to rise and get out of control, stop and drop whatever you’re doing. Take a moment to be still and quiet. Use this time to remind yourself that you are in control of what you do and say. Try to name the emotions that you are feeling without attaching any judgment to them (i.e., do not label them as good or bad, positive or negative).

T - Take a step back

After stopping, consciously take a step back. You can do this by taking a few deep breaths so that your mind can calm, slow down, and think clearly. Continue breathing intentionally for as long as you need until you feel you are in control. It is perfectly alright to take your time to decide how to respond.

O - Observe

Once you’ve taken a step back, bring your awareness to everything happening around you. Who is present? Where are you? Observe your environment as objectively as possible. Then, observe your internal experience. Pay attention to any automatic negative thoughts that enter your stream of thought — remind yourself that these are based on an outdated belief system. You observe to gain relevant facts that will help you understand what is happening and the options you have.

P - Proceed Mindfully

After stopping, taking a step back, and observing, you can then decide how to proceed. Ask yourself questions such as, “What is my objective?” or “What do I want from this situation?” By being mindful of how you proceed, you may feel calmer and more self-assured about the choices you make to address the situation as best as you can.

What is the STOP Skill Used for?

Like the other distress tolerance skills, STOP is used to help you survive a crisis. It can be thought of as an “emergency mindfulness” skill when emotions are high. This skill helps you get through the distressing situation without doing something you don’t mean to do, such as unhelpful actions. It also allows you to confront the situation instead of avoiding it.

Examples of Using the STOP Skill

Understanding the DBT STOP skill is easier when we have concrete examples. Here are a few to illustrate this skill:

  • Stop. Imagine a situation that might make you very emotional and, possibly, make things worse without meaning to. For instance, being angry might make you want to lash out at someone. Now, think of what it would feel like to act on that emotion, and then freeze.
  • Take a Step Back. Let’s imagine that the anger is coming from an argument with your significant other. During these moments of anger, you’ve always been tempted to throw objects across the room. After you stop (perhaps you’ve decided to stop arguing), you might take a step back by going into another room to simmer down. You might take a few moments to breathe and let your anger subside.
  • Observe. As your anger is beginning to subside, you can observe what is happening around you and inside you. What can you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste? Notice what is happening with your own mind and body. Do you feel tension in your muscles, or are you more relaxed? Are your thoughts racing, or can you think more clearly?
  • Proceed Mindfully. After you’ve taken a step back and observed what is going on around you, you might approach your partner. You offer an apology and talk to each other calmly and respectfully. It becomes easier to find a solution together once you’ve taken the time to STOP.

How Do You Practice the STOP Skill in DBT?

Like other skills, doing STOP effectively is easier said than done. There are several ways that you can practice this skill. While you are calm and regulated, try going through scenarios that have made you upset in the past. Imagine how it would feel to stop, take a step back, observe, and proceed mindfully. You can even act it out on your own or with another person who’s close to you. By doing so, you will be more prepared to use this skill the next time a distressing situation arises.

The Bottom Line

The STOP skill from DBT can stop a distressing situation from developing into the beginning of a greater issue. You can use this together with the previous DBT skills you’ve learned, such as interpersonal effectiveness skills, to maintain good relationships. Consider trying it out with different DBT worksheets to learn more about how to manage extreme emotions to find balance.