Our emotions have an immense impact on our mental focus. Emotions dictate where we put our attention. The more intense an emotion gets, the more narrow our focus gets. Emotions prompt us to zoom WAY in on the person or situation creating the emotion. We stop being able to see the bigger picture clearly.
For example, anger at your spouse in the NOW moment can drown out all the OTHER moments and years where things were smooth and felt more solid. In the NOW, all you might feel is the overwhelming desire to verbally attack and ridicule your spouse because of how narrow anger has made your focus. Your mind isn’t able in that moment of anger to access all the moments of tenderness and support between you and your spouse. Intense emotion hijacks our rational thought.
There is a solution for us though. Dr. Viktor Frankl summarizes it: “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Dr. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and psychotherapist who got imprisoned in concentration camps for several years in his mid 30's. Through the lens of his unique training about the human psyche, he observed the different ways fellow prisoners responded to the atrocities of their daily lives in the camps.
Dr. Frankl survived his imprisonment and wrote Man's Search for Meaning about his experience and what he believed helped him and some others to make it out alive. In this book, he shared many insights, including how to harness that space between an unwanted event (stimulus) and our reaction (response).
Many of the folks I work with experience emotions that are quite intense and come on very rapidly. It's common to feel powerless to have control of them. It does take some consistent practice and intense effort to find that space between stimulus and response and to get skilled at using that space very intentionally.
It helps to know your own physical cues and signals for different emotions. This may be something you're not used to sensing or identifying but it's certainly learnable. What can I do about my anger? provides some insight about how that particular emotion may show up physically in different parts of your body.
The STOP skill offers a process and strategies for bringing your rational brain back online as soon as you realize it has been hijacked by an emotion. The key is to catch yourself as quickly as possible upon the first sensation of an emotion, because the more intense an emotion gets, the more difficult it can be to pull yourself back from it.
STOP. Just press pause on any reaction to the moment.
Stay still - avoid reacting on any impulse yet.
Take a step back and look at your situation intentionally.
Take a deep breath (or 10) to get ample oxygen to your brain for better clarity.
Take a moment to check in with yourself deliberately.
Take a walk away from the situation if needed to get space for clarity.
Observe your current situation - first just state the actual facts of what's happening, without the extra projections and layers that emotions and thoughts bring.
Observe your emotions - am I feeling worried? frustrated? scared? jealous?
Observe your thoughts - how am I making sense of the situation? What interpretations am I making of the facts? What projections am I making about the future? what assumptions am I making about others?
Observe your needs - what do I need right now? do I need support? space? soothing? resources? solutions?
Observe your urges - what is my impulse here? am I wanting to attack? to escape? to numb? to avoid?
Observe your long-term values - aside from this current moment, what matters most to me? Relationship connections? Stability? Safety? Freedom?
Observe your options - what actual choices do I have right now?
Pros and Cons - what are the pros and cons of acting on the options in front of me? how might my actions play out in the long term and the short term?
Proceed thoughtfully - with both your needs and your values in mind.
Proceed without judging yourself for where you are right now, even if you are not able to react the way you want.
This is a skill that gets easier over time. Stopping to reflect has to become an intentional choice. Repeated efforts to stop, check-in with yourself, and consider your needs and options will increase your sense of control in any given moment. Practicing mindful awareness in general will increase your emotional control also.
Try using the STOP skill next time you are agitated with the drivers around you or with a stranger posting something upsetting online. It's an easier skill to practice when the emotional stakes are lower. Once you are skilled in the lower-intensity moments, it will be more accessible to you in the high stakes moments that matter the most to you.
Adapted from DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition by Marsha Linehan.
If you experience intense emotions and want to better understand yourself and learn new ways to manage emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.