The STOPP technique for managing anxiety

There is a useful CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) technique that I often use with my clients to help them manage anxiety when it is peaking. It’s an excellent tool that you can use to gain back control of emotions and thoughts. 

STOPP is an acronyms (counsellors love acronyms!) which means each letter stands in for each step in the technique. Let’s look into them in more detail:

Stop : when you notice negative thoughts or anxiety starting, pause what you are doing. Saying “stop” in your head can help too. 

Take a breath: take some deep breaths, with slower, controlled exhales. Focus on your breath for a moment. This helps us think more clearly. 

Observe: pay attention to how you feel physically – are you holding tension in your shoulders, is your heart racing, etc. Also, pay attention to your thoughts – where is your attention and what are you thinking/worrying about. You may also notice what your immediate urge to respond is, like escape or responding angrily. Understanding this can put you back in control. 

Perspective: this is a very important step. Reviewing those thoughts you’ve identified, look rationally about how likely your worries are to happen (it is generally very unlikely). What would you do if they did happen? Is there a reasonable explanation or most likely outcome? Will you remember this in six months time? What would you say to a friend in this situation? What would a friend say to you? Challenging your thoughts in this way can help you step out of the immediate situation and emotional reaction and look at what is happening more rationally. 

Proceed: decide what is best to do now – how do I want to react to this situation in a way that fits my values? What would be the most calm and effective response? 

The earlier you use this technique the more effective it is. It would be very difficult to try this for the first time when your anxiety is very high. It can be easier to practise this when you are not anxious and then put it into place when you start to need it. Like physical exercise, you will become stronger the more you use this mental exercise. Rather than reacting impulsively with negative consequences, we can choose a more helpful and positive response. The more you use this technique the stronger your mental muscles will be and the more control you have over your anxiety and responses. However, if you find your anxiety is getting too much, it is worth seeking professional help and support. 

“Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.”

-Charles Spurgeon

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