11/09/2013 09:40 am ET

Caught in Reactivity? How the Acronym STOP Can Help You Find Calm

A while ago, my meditation teacher told me the story of an older man who was struggling with anger issues.

He had a teenage daughter (a difficult age for any young woman -- just ask my parents) who, you know, would do what teenagers do -- challenge him, not follow the rules, not listen to him, etc. When his daughter would do this, however, he would take the argument to a whole other level by exploding with anger and screaming at her. He would always regret his outbursts later, but felt unable to temper them in the moment.

So many of us struggle with similar problems. We are faced with difficult interpersonal interactions and make the situation much, much worse with our reactivity. Have you ever been cut off in traffic and flipped the guy off who did it? Or been told you did something wrong and gotten hostile and defensive? Or been the one who's escalated an argument when someone else started it? Then you know what I'm talking about.

Oh, and if you've never experienced the above situations but are, you know, a human being --then you know what I'm talking about.

Mindfulness meditation offers a specific, practical solution for reactivity. In this context, reactivity is defined as a negative, unskillful, impulsive reaction to a difficult situation. The solution is encapsulated in the acronym STOP.

S stands for Stop. The goal here is to catch yourself before you react. The guy cuts you off in traffic and before you do anything else, you say to yourself, Stop. Your coworker criticizes your work and you say to yourself, Stop. Someone starts yelling at you and you say to yourself Stop. Stop is a pause before reactivity. Stop is a moment of mindfulness and awareness before reactivity.

T stands for Take a Breath. Next, you take a deep breath. A good, solid, deep breath takes at least a couple seconds, if not longer. The breath serves to ground you in your body, ground you in the moment, and relax you a bit (when we feel upset, we start breathing more shallowly and in our chests, and deep breathing can trigger a calming response). The deep breath also serves to give you a few more precious seconds of pausing before reacting.

O stands for Observe. Observe is where the money is. In this step you are breaking a habit. Instead of listening to all the narratives in your head about how wrong the other person is and how right you are, you pay attention to your body (a place we typically ignore). Instead of listening to your thoughts, you listen to your body.

Drop down your awareness into your body and notice what's happening. What do you feel? What sensations are arising? Maybe you feel tightness in your chest or tingling in your stomach? Maybe you hands are tightly gripped together?

Then, pay attention to the emotions behind these physical sensations. Yes, you probably feel angry, but there is likely something beneath the anger. Maybe you feel threatened or unsafe, or your feelings are hurt. Often when you understand the underlying emotion, the power of the anger diminishes.

P stands for Proceed. Last, you continue on with whatever you were doing.

How to use STOP. Written out, it may seem like this process will take forever (I can hear your responses now -- I don't have time to do this! I'm in the middle of an argument!), but with practice you can do the whole thing in a few seconds, in the moment.

Also, be kind to yourself about your progress. My meditation teacher told me that the man in the above story tried this technique a few times and one day thought, right as he was starting to yell at his daughter, "Here I go again..."

My meditation teacher felt this was a success. The man had still yelled, and still felt guilty later, but now he had a moment of awareness before reacting. Awareness is nothing to sneeze at. It is a wedge you can drive deeper and deeper to increase the space between trigger and reaction.

Elana Miller, M.D. writes at Zen Psychiatry. She is a psychiatrist who is passionate about integrating western medicine with eastern philosophy to help people live fuller and happier lives. To get new articles on improving your health and happiness, join her weekly newsletter.