Two people, one with a white shirt and one with a red shirt, sit next to each other looking at a computer where they are attending a DBT group to learn the DBT STOP skill.

The STOP Skill: A DBT Tool to Use in Difficult Moments

6 min.

You can use STOP, a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) crisis survival skill, to manage distress and handle potentially harmful situations. Keep reading to learn how.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

June 4, 2023

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Table of Contents

What is the STOP skill?

The STOP skill in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a crisis survival technique used to manage distress and potentially harmful situations. The acronym STOP stands for:

S: Stop

The first step is to cease all action. If you’re in a situation that is causing distress, this step requires you to stop any immediate reaction. It’s like hitting the pause button on your emotions and actions.

T: Take a step back

After stopping, the next step is to distance yourself from the situation mentally. This could involve deep breathing or other calming techniques. The goal is to allow a mental and emotional break from the stressor.

O: Observe

 In this step, you observe the situation objectively. You become aware of your feelings, thoughts, and the circumstances around you. It’s about noticing what is happening without getting wrapped up in it.

P: Proceed mindfully

With a clear understanding of the situation and your reaction, you can proceed with awareness and mindfulness. This involves making a deliberate choice about how to respond rather than reacting impulsively.

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How the DBT STOP skill can help you in a crisis 

The DBT STOP skill is a valuable tool that can help individuals effectively cope with crises and manage distressing situations. It is particularly useful in times of crisis because it combines elements of distress tolerance and mindfulness, which are essential components of DBT.

In the context of DBT, distress tolerance refers to the ability to withstand and tolerate distressing emotions and situations without resorting to impulsive or harmful behaviors. It is about finding healthier ways to cope with distress rather than attempting to change or escape from the situation immediately. The STOP skill integrates distress tolerance techniques with mindfulness to provide a structured approach for managing crises.

What conditions can DBT and the STOP skill help treat?

DBT, with its focus on distress tolerance, mindfulness, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness, is commonly used to treat several mental health conditions, including:

Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

Psychologist Marsha M. Linehan originally developed DBTto address BPD. The STOP skill, along with other DBT techniques, helps people with BPD manage intense emotions, impulsivity, self-destructive behaviors, and interpersonal difficulties.

Substance use disorders (SUD)

DBT has shown efficacy in treating substance use disorders. By incorporating distress tolerance techniques like the STOP skill into treatment, people struggling with addiction can learn to tolerate cravings, cope with withdrawal symptoms, and avoid impulsive actions related to substance use.

Eating disorders

DBT can be beneficial in the treatment of eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and anorexia nervosa. Distress tolerance skills like the STOP skill can aid individuals in managing distressing emotions and developing healthier coping mechanisms instead of turning to disordered eating behaviors.

Mood disorders

DBT has been adapted for treating mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder. The STOP skill can help individuals regulate intense emotions, prevent impulsive actions during depressive or manic episodes, and enhance emotional stability.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

DBT, including distress tolerance techniques like the STOP skill, can be integrated into trauma-focused therapy to assist individuals in managing distressing symptoms associated with PTSD, such as flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, and emotional dysregulation.

The DBT STOP skill can be particularly valuable for individuals dealing with these conditions. By following the steps STOP skill steps, individuals gain the ability to interrupt impulsive reactions, ground themselves in the present moment, and make thoughtful choices rather than engaging in self-destructive or maladaptive behaviors. The distress tolerance aspect of DBT empowers individuals to tolerate distressing emotions, urges, and situations without immediately attempting to change or escape them.

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Applying the STOP skill in daily life

The STOP skill can be applied not only in crisis situations but also in daily life to enhance emotional regulation, reduce impulsivity, and promote overall well-being. Here’s a step-by-step guide for how you can apply the STOP skill in your day-to-day life:

Stop

Whenever you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or on the verge of impulsive behavior, pause and physically or mentally stop your actions. This simple interruption allows you to create a brief moment of space and break the automatic patterns of reacting.

Take a breath

Take a deep breath and focus your attention on the sensation of your breath entering and leaving your body. Breathing deeply and mindfully helps activate the body’s relaxation response, which can calm your nervous system and bring a sense of grounding.

Observe

Shift your attention to the present moment and observe your internal and external experience without judgment. Notice any physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, or urges that arise. Allow them to come and go, acknowledging their presence without getting caught up in them.

Proceed mindfully

After pausing, taking a breath, and observing, make a conscious choice about how to proceed. Consider the situation, your values, and your long-term goals. Instead of reacting impulsively, respond mindfully by choosing a course of action that aligns with your well-being and promotes positive outcomes.

Applying the STOP skill in daily life can help you break free from automatic and impulsive reactions, allowing for more thoughtful and intentional responses. It helps create awareness and self-control in various situations, like when you’re facing a challenging conversation, experiencing intense emotions, dealing with stress, or making important decisions.

By incorporating the STOP skill into your daily routine, you can cultivate distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and mindfulness, leading to a greater sense of well-being and improved relationships with others. Remember that practicing this skill takes time and patience, and it may be helpful to seek guidance from a trained DBT therapist to explore its application in your specific circumstances.

A woman in a green sweater sits on a bed next to a young person in a lighter cable knit sweater. The two hold hands and the young person looks in distress, but she is using the DBT STOP skill to manage her emotions.

Incorporating the STOP skill in the workplace

As mentioned, people can incorporate the STOP skill into all aspects of their life, but many people find it particularly beneficial in the workplace for several reasons: 

Emotional regulation

The STOP skill helps people regulate their emotions, which is particularly important in the workplace. By pausing and taking a breath, employees can create a moment of mindfulness, allowing them to respond to stressful situations with greater composure and emotional stability. This can lead to better self-control and a reduction in impulsive or reactive behaviors, which are inappropriate in the workplace.

Decision-making

When faced with important decisions or complex problems at work, the STOP skill allows individuals to step back and observe the situation more objectively. By observing their thoughts and emotions without judgment, employees can make more rational and strategic decisions, considering the potential consequences and aligning them with organizational goals.

Conflict resolution

In workplace conflicts, the STOP skill can prevent impulsive reactions that may escalate the situation. By pausing and observing their internal experience, employees can gain clarity about their feelings and reactions, enabling them to respond more thoughtfully and constructively. This can foster better communication, understanding, and collaboration among team members.

Stress management

The workplace can be a source of significant stress. The STOP skill allows employees to manage stress effectively by interrupting the automatic stress response and promoting a more mindful approach. By practicing the STOP skill, individuals can reduce stress levels, increase resilience, and prevent burnout, improving well-being and productivity at work.

Enhanced focus and productivity

Incorporating the STOP skill in the workplace encourages employees to be more present and focused on their tasks. By taking a moment to pause and proceed mindfully, individuals can avoid distractions, make better use of their time and energy, and improve overall productivity.

By integrating the STOP skill in the workplace, organizations can create a culture that prioritizes emotional regulation, thoughtful decision-making, and effective communication. This can lead to a more positive work environment, improved employee well-being, and increased productivity and success for the organization as a whole.

DBT with Charlie Health

If you think DBT and the STOP skill might be a useful tool for yourself or a loved one, Charlie Health may be able to help – reach out to get signed up today. Charlie Health’s trained clinicians offer DBT as well as many other useful forms of therapy.

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