Welcome to Mindfulness Monday! This week we will explore a valuable method for learning how to respond to stress instead of reacting to it. The STOP method teaches us to incorporate a “pause” between the stressor and our reaction to it. This allows us time to respond rather than react.
In today’s culture the word “stress” is used to mean anything from busyness to work demands. The word itself is overused and poorly understood by many people. Merriam-Webster’s defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from very demanding circumstances.” Most uses of the word in today’s society fail in making an accurate representation.
“Stress is the inability to tell the difference between what is happening and what you think is happening”Victor Davich
How to Understand Stress
The perception of stress is different for each person, making a generalized statement regarding individual stress difficult. But in order to learn how to respond to stress instead of reacting to it, we must first understand what stress means. An easy way of grasping this is, understanding stress occurs when something unwelcome and undesired happens. This may look like something frightening to you, a situation causing grief or a threat taking something from you.
Sometimes stress looks like a moment of pain or loss, an out of control situation or a demand that you cannot meet. Since your brain perceives stress as a threat, you could view it as an arrow headed straight towards you. Your brain knows the potential danger of that arrow hitting its mark!
Stress is a Threat
The brain views stress as a threat to your physical well-being much like the arrow coming at you or a tiger chasing you. In our culture today, this threat looks more like a danger to our comfort, security or relationships. This threat causes a “reaction” called the “fight or flight” response.
The reaction comes from inside of us, something we “do”, similar to a reflex, but not quite. We have no control over bodily reflexes, however, we can control a reaction. No conscious decision is required to have a stress reaction, it generally happens on its own. Reactivity has an automatic, reflex like quality because it happens outside of our awareness.
Stress Reaction Symptoms
Because stress reactions are biological in nature, they affect our bodies in physical ways. Stress reactions are different for everyone and every situation. Not everyone experiences all of these symptoms when under stress, but most of us can recognize may of these in our lives.
- Muscular System Tension
- Shoulders are elevated
- Fist tightened
- Jaws clenched
- Stomach pain
- Adrenaline and cortisol rush
- Lack of mental focus
“Between a stimulus and a response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”Victor Frankl
Mindfulness Brings Awareness
Mindfulness gives us a way to manage reactivity. Turning to mindfulness at the beginning of the stress reaction replaces the “auto-pilot mentality, with awareness. Mindfulness provides awareness which ends the cycle of the automatic reaction to stress.
Nothing changed the experience of stress , but the awareness gives space to soften the impact of the stress event. When we slow down, we allow time to think and evaluate, resulting in a response instead of a reaction.
Changing Course Means Changing Results
We now have a new stress management tool: CHOICE. Instead of defaulting to the auto-pilot behavior of reacting, like sulking, arguing or self-isolation, we can choose what comes next. Our auto-pilot behavior of reacting to any stressor is a habit, and it always heads in the same direction. If our reaction to stress incites our lashing out in anger, we default to that behavior pattern every time. If our reaction is to self-isolate and hide, we default to that behavior pattern every time.
But if we begin by noticing the physical signs of a stress reaction in our body, we can heed the warning and change course. With mindfulness we can choose an alternate course instead of plowing ahead. Mindfulness helps you learn about your stress reaction from the inside. You begin learning how stress builds and feeds off of negative emotions. When you understand how thoughts create emotions and then sensations in the body build from there, you understand how they amplify stress until you have a meltdown.
Self Awareness is Key to Responding Instead of Reacting
To fully understand how to respond to stress instead of reacting to it, mastering better self awareness is paramount. Eliminating the occurrence of the unexpected, unwelcome or difficult things triggering your stress reaction is impossible. The next time you encounter a moment of stress, however, pause as soon as you recognize it. What is the first thing you notice? Do you notice tension in your body? What emotion is dominant? Do you notice your thoughts active with anxious forecasts as a result of the stressor? Sometimes unpleasant memories from a past event also flood in.
Spend time noticing your reactions to stress this next week. Remember, whatever you discover, avoid efforts aimed at correction or suppression. Explore it, learn from it, look for this type of reactivity in other situations. The more often you observe and build self awareness in this way, the easier you recognize and stop reactivity.
Learn to “STOP” and Choose
As you learn from exploring your own stress reactions, recognizing thought patterns that create your emotional reaction will become more evident. You will quickly discern physical sensations in your body and recognize the need to pause.
Employing mindfulness through the STOP method allows you control over the situation instead of the other way around. Imagine what a difference this could make in family related stress issues or work pressures.
How to “STOP” and Respond
Once you learn proficiency recognizing your initial reaction to any stressor, at the very beginning of your stress reaction, try the STOP method.
- “S”- Stop/Pause. Disengage from the immediate stressor, sit down. Stay “present”, avoid running in your mind to the future or past. Keep looking, feeling, “being” in that present moment.
- “T”- Take a breath, and be still for a moment without changing anything about your emotional or physical state. Explore your choices. What can you do, right then, that will make a difference?
- “O”-Observe. Notice bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions.
- “P”-Pray. Seek God’s calming Presence relinquishing the situation to His sovereign care.
Knowing your default stress behaviors when triggered helps you begin retraining your mind. Compile a list of Bible verses pertaining to your reactive tendencies, whether you react in anger, anxiety or self-isolation. Record the verses on index cards kept easily accessible. After completing the STOP method steps above, meditate on the verses you chose, replacing negative thoughts with God’s truth.
“The greatest weapon against stress is the ability to choose one thought over another “William James
Freedom of Choice and Response
While the STOP method of mindfulness may seem overly simplistic, it is a powerful tool in the moment stopping a downward spiral. We all learn “default” modes of reacting to unwelcome, unexpected and threatening things.
Taking a moment to pause, breathe and consider, settles our body’s physical reactions, allowing us understanding of the thoughts creating emotions in that moment and offers us a better way forward.
Using the STOP method of mindfulness keeps us in the present reality rather than an anxiety filled future. When you give your mind a moment to pause, you find creative solutions in the moment to de-escalate the threat. You now take the power away from the outside stressor controlling you, and place it back in your hands choosing to respond appropriately instead of falling victim to reactivity.
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