By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
Wow! The world is emotionally charged lately! Am I right? If you amongst the many who are trying to avoid the hard emotions that the current state of the world is sharing, maybe it’s time to learn how to not just feel the emotions but regulate them.
What is Emotional Regulation?
If you recall from my post, Emotional Regulation: The Power to Control Your Emotions, emotional regulation is the art of the following:
- Identifying and acknowledging the emotions you are experiencing (Not avoiding them!)
- Recognizing how the emotions trigger a reaction
- Choosing a reaction that is a better fit with the situation than the one we want do impulsively give
- Reflecting on how the new reaction met your needs versus the original reaction you wanted to give
Does that sound easy and complicated all at once? It sure does! Please keep in mind, I am a therapist, but I’m not your therapist. If you find that these skills sound like they would be what you need, but are unsure where to start, talk to your therapist! Don’t have one? That’s okay. Use the link below to help you locate a therapist close to you.
STOPP and Emotional Regulation
. Today, I want to talk more about some of these amazing ways to help you regulate those emotions. Why? For starters, different things work for different people. Second, by having options to try, you can find what works best for you. With all these options, take some time to practice some of them (there I go with practicing again) to determine which ones you find helps your brain out the best.
Coping Skills Alert!
STOPP is one of those magical acronyms I teach all my clients, young and old. Remember when your teacher would tell you “slow down and think about what you need to solve this problem?” STOPP follows similar principles of slowing down, recognizing what is going on, and looking at what are your options on how to react to that information. Cool, isn’t it? Lets take some time to explore STOPP a bit deeper.
Slow Down and STOPP!
The S in STOPP stands for just that: stop what you are doing! By stopping what you are doing when you recognize your emotions are getting out and ahead of you, you are doing several things. First, you are allowing your darn amygdala to share what the heck it is feeling. Listening to that darn amygdala is allowing you to validate yourself and what you are feeling. Dare I say it, you acknowledge what you are feeling (emotional regulation 101 baby!). Second, you give your prefrontal cortex the ability to catch up with what that darn amygdala is doing. Getting your prefrontal cortex and your darn amygdala in the same place and at the same party, helps prepare the rest of your brain (and body) for the next step.
The T represents taking a clarifying breath. For those of you who read my post, Mindfulness: The Art of Becoming Calm, Cool, and Collected, there is a reason why taking a breath is so important. When we are stressed, our oxygen exchange changes because we are now breathing in shallow, not “normal” breaths. This triggers our body to raise its blood pressure and prepare for the triple F response. Cortisol gets released and boom! You’re experiencing the not-so nice emotions your darn amygdala wants you to instantly (and impulsively might I add) act on. That clarifying breath will allow your body to improve it’s oxygen exchange and naturally lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Why is this important? This additional oxygen will keep the neurotransmitters adrenaline and norepinephrine low enough for your prefrontal cortex to prepare for the next part of the acronym.
O is what the prefrontal cortex does best, observe. You have to give your prefrontal cortex time to observe:
- What is going on inside of you:
- Identify all your feelings (sad, mad, embarrassed, overwhelmed, guilty, just for example)
- Identify what you are physically feeling (tight shoulders, clinching jaw, rapid breathing, racing thoughts, the list goes on)
- What is going on around you:
- What are your senses telling you? (what is your body temperature? Are you smelling something different? Do you see something? What are you hearing?)
- How is the energy around you?
- Are there certain events going on that can trigger certain emotions?
- Who are the people around you?
As we prepare for our prefrontal cortex to lead the charge on that darn amygdala, we are also preparing our hippocampus to start to release some GABA to calm us down and glutamate to recall when we have experienced these emotions in the past. Observation, and allowing those observations to carry some weight, prepares our brain for emotional regulation.
STOPP with 2 Ps
Now that we have observation down pat, we need to explore what options we have at our disposal. The first P of STOPP stands for process. By giving our brain time to process, we are able to identify what options we have, as far as reactions go, and what those reactions’ outcomes will be. For example, lets say our boss tells us we need to come in early and our darn amygdala wants us to say “shove it up your ass!” If we look at that option, we may be able to see that may cost us our job, ability to pay our bills, and even the ability to get a new job. So as much as we would love to say it, is the impulsive desire worth it? Most likely not. Now, if we were able to use our words and say “I’m feeling frustrated that I’m the only person that is getting asked to come in early”, it may help your boss understand that you are a reliable worker that just wants answers.
Looking at all of our options does another thing for our brain: helps us identify what is in our control. When our emotions are out of wack and running away with us, knowing what we can realistically control helps bring us back to emotional regulation. What is in our control is what brings us to regulation.
The final P in STOPP represents Proceed. Once you have processed all of your options on how to react to your emotions, you have to be able to pick the reaction that give you the greatest amount of help. Some people may be saying right now “I know why I have to choose a decision, but does it have to be a commitment to it?” The answer is, yes. Making a decision, and sticking to it, does several things for our brain. The most notable would be the development of memories for the hypothalamus and hippocampus to store and help you make a similar decision if a particular emotion were to resurface in the future. We are literally storing memories of how we would like to react to the emotion we are feeling! Call me a dork, but that is amazing to see how we can rewire our brain!
How do you use STOPP in Tough Situations?
Now that you have an idea of what STOPP is, how do you use it? Thank you for asking such a wonderfully insightful question! STOPP is something that if you practice (there is that dirty word again) on a regular basis, it becomes like second nature to use it. It will take a while, but if you remember from my post, Why Change Is So Hard, it takes 66 days for a behavior to become a habit. During that time you will rewire your brain to use STOPP automatically. How cool would that be to make a coping skill part of the way you view and react to the world around you without even thinking about it?
Thank you for taking the time to learn how to use STOPP and why it is an important part of emotional regulation. I like to tell clients to practice STOPP when it comes to eating breakfast. Why? It is a low stress activity we need to do each day and it helps us make a choice on how to start our day. Mental wealth is a journey worth taking. Thank you for letting me be part of your journey.
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- Hull University Teaching Hospital (date unknown). STOPP. Retrieved from OHC_STOPP.pdf (hey.nhs.uk)
- Steele, Claude M. 1988. The Psychology of Self-Affirmation: Sustaining the Integrity of the Self. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 21, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, 261–302. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.