STOP, THINK, or Surf the S(T)UN WAVE While You Count to Ten!

When I was young, my mother told me that if I got angry, I should count to ten before taking any action. By waiting, I would avoid acting on impulse and my anger would presumably dissipate and I could make a more rational and effective decision.

We now know (maybe we did then) that it takes about 12 seconds for an emotion to dissipate unless we reignite it, so counting to ten sounds like a pretty good suggestion. However, all too often counting to ten fails because we remain focused on our anger: we either stoke our anger or even reignite it after it dies down. Instead of actively using the time to calm down, we spend the ten seconds ruminating, dreaming of vengeance, continuing to mentally berate the person who harmed us, or even increasing our anger by either berating ourselves for becoming angry or the other person for having caused us to have such mean and petty thoughts.

I would like to suggest three DBT skills that provide us with something constructive to do during those precious ten (or more) seconds. The first is STOP. Come to a complete stop (stop all movement, even your breath, for a few moments); take a slow, deep breath or begin paced breathing; observe the situation dispassionately; and proceed mindfully. These steps will distract you from obsessing on your emotion and reduce the cortisol being released into your blood stream (as part of the flight-fright-freeze reaction). They will actually help you return to your emotional baseline and then consider how to proceed wisely (in Wise Mind).

Alternatively, you may THINK. Before you speak, think about whether what you are about to say is objectively true (perhaps, it is a feeling or an opinion; perhaps, the other person has a different perspective and thinks you are the one who is unreasonable), have empathy for the other (try to make sense of how they feel), interpret their actions in benign or even outlandish ways (to free yourself from the negative assumptions you are stuck in), notice the other person (are they really afraid instead of angry, are they making some move toward you [even by toning down their language slightly]), be kind and gentle with the words you use as you proceed (even if you cannot forgive or forget).

Thirdly, you may use a S(T)UN Wave. Observe your physical sensations, thoughts, and action urges. Then name the emotions they are related to. Now that you are aware of your emotions, just sit with them, neither increasing nor decreasing them. The heightened emotions will begin to fade away as long as you do not reignite them. Having returned to baseline, you will be able to consider acting effectively, harnessing your compassion, empathy, and curiosity about the other person.

As you practice these skills, you can replace your former negative emotions with more effective and/or more positive emotions. This will complete the process of managing and shaping your emotions. For instance, meditate briefly on your love—the person I was angry with is my loved one, whom I cherish, so I would like to enhance and preserve our relationship. Think about the positives in your situation—the person who told me off is my boss and I am happy with my job and my colleagues, so I would be better off not yelling at him. Make a benign assumption about the waitress’s behavior. Perhaps she yelled at me because she is having a bad day and her feet hurt. How would I act if I felt that way? Alternatively, you may choose to recite a mantra or a line from a song that rapidly shifts your mood—“Let it be,” “I’ll always love you,” “The sun will come out tomorrow,” “Thank God I have a job”—or hijack your somatic system by surreptitiously taking a whiff of your wife’s beloved perfume or your husband’s cologne and remind yourself of the love that could be flooding your heart, instead of the displeasure and hate.

So next time you count to ten, try using one of these skills, and then proceed mindfully. Good luck!