Using the STOP skill in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

12 Feb, 2021

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is an advanced approach to therapy that has become widely accepted as one of the most effective forms of therapy used today.  DBT has been effective in helping treat a range of mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, as well as substance use disorders. One aspect of DBT is framed around the use of multiple acronyms which are meant to be easily memorized as methods for self-soothing in times of crisis and general anxiety. One of the most important skills a person can learn while studying DBT is to use STOP. STOP is meant to force you to pause in your tracks when about to do something potentially risky, unadvised, or in the midst of an act of self-sabotage.

The Abbreviation ‘STOP’

STOP as an abbreviation stands for the following:

  1. S: Stop
  2. T: Take a step back
  3. O: Observe
  4. P: Proceed Mindfully

It is important to note that each steps correlates with an entire mindset meant to help sooth people with mental health struggles: the formula behind DBT.

In Context

DBT was designed to help clients better deal with stress and focuses on acquiring new skills and changing negative behaviors. This is where the STOP skill is most effective. STOP is meant to be used in situations where you are at risk of doing something that could be harmful or lead to negative consequences as a result of stress or anger. According to DBT, for a person with low “distress tolerance,” it can be difficult to control one’s anger or other negative emotions that may cause a person to lash out at others or engage in self-harming behaviors. DBT uses the STOP skill as a way to help a person better process their emotions and react in a more positive and healthy way.

STOP stands for:

  1. Stop
  2. Take a step back
  3. Observe
  4. Proceed Mindfully

It is important to note that each step correlates with an entire mindset meant to help sooth people with mental health struggles. Each step of STOP will be discussed more thoroughly below. 

S: Stop

This step literally means to stop what you are doing. In a situation when you might be about to blow a gasket or simply let your emotions get the better of you, this encourages you to stop, think about the potential consequences of your behavior, and halt in that action. Simply stopping what you’re doing and knowing when to stop is such an invaluable skill because you might finally be able to get a gauge on what the best or most appropriate course of action may be, not just what your emotions’ first instinct points to.

T: Take a Step Back

Once you stop engaging in what you are feeling or doing, take a step back and allow yourself to reflect on the situation from a more objective standpoint. This step lets you consider how you would have behaved and the consequences of your reaction or actions before you actually do it. For example, what could have happened if you yelled at your boss? Probably nothing good, so it’s a good thing that you stopped and took a step back from the situation before telling them to take the job and shove it. While you may have been very upset in the moment, using Stop and Take a Step Back can help you nip however you were going to react in the bud, before you act in a way that could cause you to lose your job.

O: Observe

Once you stop and take a step back, it’s important to take time to observe your own thoughts and emotions. While the first two steps are meant to keep you from reacting rashly in the moment, this is the most important step for making behavioral changes. This is an opportunity for you to reflect on how you were feeling, why you were feeling this way, and what about the situation caused you to want to react negatively in the first place. Maybe you feel like you were being ignored or overlooked. Maybe someone did something that you asked them not to. Maybe you don’t know what provoked such a strong response. That’s why it’s important to observe what was going on at the time in order to figure out why you feel the way you do and want to behave a certain way.

P: Proceed Mindfully

After you’ve taken time to observe your emotions and the reasons behind them, you can then move on to proceeding mindfully. Hopefully, the previous steps (Stop, Take a Step Back, and Observe) have allowed you to stop an emotion or reaction in its tracks, emotionally remove yourself from the situation, and reflect on what’s really going on inside you. These steps should help calm you down and allow you to reassess the situation from a more objective and less emotional standpoint. Maybe you were cranky because you were tired or hungry. Maybe you got scared that someone could hurt themselves. Maybe you really are being micromanaged at work. Once you can determine the what and the why behind your initial reaction, you can figure out how to approach the situation in a positive and productive way. 

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) has been lauded as an effective form of therapy to help people better deal with stress, process negative emotions, and change harmful behaviors. DBT has been proven useful in treating mood disorders, depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance use disorders. DBT teaches practical skills like STOP that can be used to curb negative emotions and behaviors when they arise and improve a person’s distress tolerance. Sober Life is a treatment center in San Diego, California that uses DBT to effectively treat mental health disorders and addiction to drugs or alcohol. If you or someone close to you is currently struggling with substance use or a severe mental health problem, call Sober Life at (619) 542-9542 for additional information on how DBT is corporated into their inpatient, outpatient, and aftercare programs and to learn how they can help you better manage your struggles and live life to the fullest. 

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