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STOP skill DBT : What is it and how to use it

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Just Stop It

Often, clients will say to me, “If I could just stop it, then I’d be fine”. “It” typically refers to an unhealthy behavior or unpleasant emotion.

As much as I wish it were that easy, most psychological distresses are not healed or improved by just “stopping it”.

However, there is one way that using the term “stop” can be beneficial for your mental wellbeing.

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy or DBT founded by Marsha Linehan, there is a distress tolerance skill known as the STOP skill.

This skill is useful when noticing that our emotions may be causing us to want to act impulsively on unhealthy behaviors. So, the next time we are having the urge to text your ex or before we cuss out the customer service representative, this skill may come in handy.

The STOP skill stands for stop, take a step back, observe, and proceed mindfully.

It is helpful to think of what we would do when approaching a stop sign to remember this acronym. For example, the first step is to literally stop. If we are stopped or frozen, we cannot act in an unhealthy manner.

It also allows time for us to feel back in control over our emotions, instead of the other way around. Picture a stop sign at a four way intersection.

First Step : STOP

you will do when you get to the sign is the physical act of stopping. While this is typically the easiest of the four letters to remember, this may be the most challenging part of the skill to master if we are used to our emotions driving the car.

The second step : Step Back

is to take a step back. This may look like taking a break from the situation or pausing a moment to slow down.

Taking a step back gives us more time to get into a wise mind state of thinking and assessing a situation more clearly. When making a full stop at a stop sign, the car will settle back. We take a moment to pause and assess the situation.

The third step observe

When we observe, we do our best to objectively assess the situation. We observe our emotions and thoughts.

We observe what is going on in our environment and within our body. We also observe what is going on in the situation and with the other person.

With this, we want to think of ourselves as a fly on the wall. We are trying not to add judgment in order to see the situation clearly. We can do this by looking at the facts. For example, a subjective assessment would be, he is screaming and cussing me out and is going to punch me in the face.

The facts of a situation, however, could be that I observe the volume of his voice is louder than typical and that his hands are clenched at his sides. This allows us to take away assumptions that our emotion mind forms to find evidence supporting the emotion we are experiencing.

While driving a car, we observe the other cars that are stopped at the intersection. We observe who has the right of way and any potential hazards in the road.

The final step is to proceed mindfully.

We take the information in that we observed and act effectively and healthfully. We proceed with our goals in mind and with the awareness of all the pieces of the situation.

Our goal here is to take the action that will lead to a better outcome. In the car, this is when we allow the car that got to the intersection first to go ahead of us and maybe we slow down for the deer that is walking on the side of the road in order to be cautious.

By using the STOP skill, we can be in control of our emotions and better, “Stop it”, before acting on impulse.

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