Awareness of our emotions can help us see clearly how deleterious factors, such as addiction, influence our lives and give us the energy to change them. For example, Paul shared, “When I put a substance of any kind in my body that feels good, it tends to set a chain of events into action that doesn’t make me feel good. Even the first one turns me into someone I don’t want to be. There’s this saying, ‘There’re certain things that control is impossible the moment it’s suggested.’ That’s alcohol and drugs for me. When addiction was manifesting itself in heavy ways for me, I think I was looking for something. I was looking for something the world isn’t offering—something that made me feel whole and connected. The practice of mindfulness is the most direct route to that feeling. It takes some hard work, courage, and commitment, but there is no moment at which it’s not possible.”
Through Paul’s self-awareness of his emotional tone, he was able to see how much better meditation made him feel overall compared to alcohol and drugs. Through this realization, he came to care for his emotions by fostering a personal mindfulness and meditation practice and acting on the insights that arose from it. There are specific practices that encourage us to take a moment to pause, check in with our emotional tone, and respond to that emotional tone in a considered way. One approach that we teach in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based College is the STOP practice.
The STOP Mindfulness Practice
One way to connect with our emotions and emotional wisdom is to use the STOP practice. The STOP practice can be used periodically throughout the day. It’s a useful habit to get into. Evidence suggests that it helps with emotion regulation, especially when feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed. But you can use it any time, as it is good training for being “here” every moment, whether that moment is pleasant, unpleasant, or somewhere in between.
Here’s how to do the STOP practice:
- S: Stop what you are doing.
- T: Take a breath.
- O: Observe and open yourself to thoughts, feelings, and the physical manifestations of the experience (tension in the shoulders, for example).
- P: Proceed by doing something to support an effective response to the experience. This might include skillfully responding to someone who just asked you to do something, taking a short walk to take some space from what just occurred, hugging that family member or friend who just smiled at you, or deciding not to have another alcoholic beverage.
In our research, the STOP practice was frequently reported as useful. One participant shared: “Alarm bells go off in my head, and I know I need to stop, take a breath, open toward me, and proceed. And then I remember to be kind to myself” (Nardi et al. 2020).
The STOP practice can help regulate strong emotions. The Mindfulness-Based College study showed significant protective effects against depression over the school term. In the people randomly assigned to be in the control group (who waited to take the course until the following term), depressive symptoms increased as exams and term papers mounted. The people randomly assigned to take the Mindfulness-Based College course, while facing the same stressors, showed resilience. Their depressive symptoms stayed stable in the face of the term’s stressors (Loucks et al. 2021). Other mindfulness studies in youths (ages 12 to 25 years) showed similar findings (Dawson et al. 2019).
I invite you to take a few opportunities each day to STOP—not only when you are feeling stressed or unsure but as a way to be in the moment, whether to feel the beautiful sun shining on your face, fully notice the smile of a child, or feel the sadness in your heart. A big part of mindfulness is coming to know yourself, including where your emotions are at right now, and recognizing that emotions may shift from moment to moment or have steadiness. One of the best ways to come to know our emotions better, and thereby care for and harness them to serve ourselves and others, is to stop and observe our feelings with curiosity, gentleness, and kindness. I invite you to try the STOP practice now, or at your next opportunity when the time feels right.