All too often, in life, it is possible to be caught off guard and thrown into an emotional storm. Something out there clashes with a long standing belief (either true or not true, useful or not useful) and disrupts a fundamental aspect of our lives that we thought was solid (really, just another belief).
Think of a time when you were accused of something you did not do, when you were hit with an unexpected bill, when one of your relationships abruptly ended, or you found yourself or a loved one face to face with a life threatening illness or death. In cases like this, it is very easy to become fused with an emotional storm complete with a host of painful thoughts which has you feeling like your out of control. Yet these are thoughts and emotions are truly not who you wish to be. So what can you do?
In Acceptance and Commitment therapy, one of the common tools I have found to be useful not only for those I work with, but for myself is to remember to S.T.O.P.
- Step Away and Slow Your Breathing
Take a step back from the situation and draw in a few deep breaths. Mindfully observe the breath flowing in and flowing out. Expand the awareness of your full field of vision (be aware of items at your peripheral line of vision). By doing so, this will help to anchor you in the here and now, the present. Just this act alone can drop you down a notch or two on an anxiety scale from a 9 to an 8 or 7 (with a 10 being totally over-whelmed to a 1 being almost no anxiety)
- Take Note
Simple be mindful of all that is going on around you and within you. Pay attention of what is happening right now in this moment. Notice what you are thinking, feeling (both emotions and sensations) and what you are doing. See if it is possible to notice how your thoughts and feelings are swirling around, threatening to carry you away if you allow them to.
- Open up
Allow yourself to let these feelings, thoughts, emotions and desires to just be. Create room for them, breathe into them and make room for them without trying to hold onto them, fight with them or try to push them away. See them for what they are and give them space, rather than fusing with them. (see the ball in the pool story about this here)
All of these first three steps are easier to implement if you have already been consistently utilizing a mindfulness practice (10+ minutes a day, 5-7 days a week). By doing this, you will develop the ability to be able to STOP more often than not, so that when occasions like the described above occur (which they inevitably will) you will be more prepared to de-fuse from the situation. (you can learn more about the defusion skill here). Finally:
- Pursue your values
Once you’ve done the above three steps, you will be in a mental state of mindfulness and you will have the ability to CHOOSE which direction or action that would be best to take (even if unpleasant). This committed action should be values based which you can learn more about here, but in brief is simply acting on what your core values in life are, what is meaningful to you, what will be the best in the long run. Values help set how you will be in the face of such challenges, what you want to stand for and most importantly, ensure that you will be able to look back later in life with pride and satisfaction on your actions.