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How to Stop Overreacting to the Small Stuff with the STOP Technique

A simple four-step mental checklist to help you nip dramatic reactions in the bud.

How do you react to the minor hassles that characterise everyday life?

Your response to getting stuck in traffic? A cancelled train? A stranger pushing past you?

Think about it. Notice it today.

We all overreact to the small stuff from time to time, but here’s the thing: research has shown that accumulated daily hassles show stronger relationships with psychological and physical issues than major stressful episodes.

That’s right: how you react to the small stuff has a bigger impact on your health than major stressful life events.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman coined the term “amygdala hijack” to describe emotional overreactions.

There are three key signs of an amygdala hijack:

  1. A sudden strong emotional reaction out of proportion to the situation
  2. A realisation afterward that the reaction was disproportionate
  3. Regret or embarrassment around the reaction

If you’ve experienced trauma, you may feel you experience more emotional overreactions than other people. This is because early chronic stress biologically reprograms how we respond to stress as adults. You may find you experience “emotional flashbacks”, which is when intense feelings occur in the present that you originally felt during the trauma, such as fear, shame or sadness.

The good news is that everyone can learn simple methods to help nip dramatic reactions in the bud – your ability to prevent, recognise and control emotions is part of your emotional intelligence, a.k.a. EQ.

People with high EQ have developed strong connections between their brain’s emotional center and the executive (thinking) center.

One simple yet powerful method for developing these connections is the mindfulness-based STOP Technique, a four-step mental checklist.

The idea is that taking a brief pause—even for less than one minute—helps us shift out of the emotional brain and into our brain’s thinking center. Doing this helps you gain perspective and determine the best action you can take in the moment.

The STOP Technique

1) STOP!

Interrupt your thoughts with the command ‘STOP!’ and pause whatever you’re doing.

2) TAKE A BREATH

Notice your breathing for a few moments.

Breathe in slowly through the nose, expanding the belly, and exhale slowly out of your mouth, through pursed lips.

3) OBSERVE

Become the observer of your thoughts, emotions and physical reactions.

What thoughts do you notice? What emotions are present? How does your body feel?

Perhaps you can your heart rate rising, your fists clenching, your cheeks flushing?

4) PROCEED

Mindfully consider how you’d like to respond – and feel yourself shift into your brain’s thinking center.

Perhaps you want to assess the thoughts you’re having.

Overreactions often happen when we become overly absorbed with ourselves, our emotions and our expectations.

You might notice thoughts along the lines of “why does this have to happen to me?” and “this isn’t fair!” Here lies the erroneous belief that we shouldn’t have to experience inconveniences like everyone else does (“should/must statements”).

You may realise you’re making assumptions about what someone else is thinking (​”mind reading”), blaming yourself (“personalising”), or engaging in another type of cognitive distortion.

Could the best action be to remove yourself from the situation?

To allow your emotions to naturally defuse by focusing on something else?

Prevention is key when it comes to emotional overreactions. Notice if this situation is one of your common triggers, and consider how you’d like to respond in future.

“You can also snap a rubber band to physically enforce the STOP. When I started doing this, I was snapping that band constantly. When you notice you’re having a negative thought that’s not helping you, snap the band. Ground yourself. Drink a sip of water, imagine you’re a rooted tree, etc. Observe your thoughts. I’d say 90% of the time I’m thinking the same types of “the sky is falling” thoughts that my brain latched on to that I can just let go. Realizing that is wonderful. My brain latches on to all thoughts and weighs them all as IMPORTANT! Doing the rubber band snap brings me down fast, from my head into an action. Most of the time, I can release the thought and get back to productive things.​”

Enjoy this tip?

Head to The Wellness Society today to discover tons of self-help tips, tools and resources!

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