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         "STOP, SLOW DOWN, (and only                       
              then) THINK, AND ACT"



                                                                 It’s not stress that kills us . . .
                                                                 It’s our reaction to it.

                                                                                               —Hans Selye


Lots of information on this page-- so, please take your time to go through all of it. This information can help you to better manage your negative emotions!

This particular toolkit was developed to help your negative emotions work FOR you, rather than AGAINST you, when faced with a stressful situation, problem, or decision. Difficulty managing strong negative feelings can be a major barrier to successfully coping with stressful problems.

No matter what difficulty you are facing, the way you go about dealing with it can make all 
the difference in the outcome. This particular toolkit was designed to help you learn how to predict, be aware of, tune into, and “turn down the volume” (i.e., to decrease the intensity) of your emotions.

Think of negative feelings as being important information that can help you become an effective problem solver. Simply put, often negative feelings “dictate” our behavior—for example, when we are very angry, sad, tense, or aroused, we may act or behave in ways that we may regret later. It is the anger (or sadness) that directs our behavior and not our intelligence or rational thinking. This toolkit helps to “train your brain” to use emotions to improve your problem solving instead of having your emotions “control” your thoughts and actions. It is important to have a balance between your brain and your heart!

Decades of scientific studies have identified certain common, although difficult, barriers that exist when trying to solve life problems under stress. One major obstacle involves negative arousal and feelings. Negative feelings, such as sadness, guilt, anger, or anxiety, when intense and overwhelming, often interfere with our ability to think of effective ways to deal with problems. They can take over our ability to think logically and mask what our emotions are truly trying to tell us, that is, that there is a problem to be solved!

When negative emotions occur, it is not long before a sense of hopelessness can take over. This can greatly lower our motivation to believe that anything can improve our situation— when that happens, we may stop trying to do anything and give up! When we are thinking logically and rationally, it makes sense that giving up guarantees failure. BUT, when we are feeling stressed out, it just feels like that is the way it is and nothing can help!

The good news is that there are ways to learn how to be an effective problem solver despite these obstacles! This is the purpose of this fourth toolkit.


SS stands for “Stop and be aware of what you are feeling, and then Slow Down.” When you combine this technique with the planful problem-solving tools described earlier, it forms an easy to remember acronym: “SSTA”:


  • STOP and become more aware-- notice how you are feeling and what you are thinking

  • SLOW DOWN: lower the intensity of your negative emotions (and only then . . . )

  • THINK: apply the planful problem-solving skills to come up with an effective solution plan, and 

  • ACT: carry out your action plan 

Our brains are set up so they can quickly learn how to sense danger. Think of this part of your brain (known as the amygdala) as your “emotional brain.” It is very sensitive to signals that indicate danger, and when triggered, a stress response kicks in. During this stress response (which is very fast), your mind and body are sent into a “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. The “thinking-through” part of your brain cannot work at its best. Loads of scientific studies with both animals and humans show this to be true. When this occurs, your thoughts and actions are likely to be more impulsive and automatic and lead to aggressive (fight), avoidant (flight), or depressed (giving up) responses. The worst part is that it happens so fast that you are not even consciously aware that this “button” is being pushed.

The SS technique can help you “quiet” your brain and body without triggering the amygdala once again and sending it into “warp speed”; in other words, it helps stop the “emotion train” in your brain from leaving the station and careening out of control! Doing so allows your "rationale brain" to think of an effective solution plan. 

Experiencing negative feelings, such as sadness, tension, or irritability, in response to stress, is common— HOWEVER, it makes the situation 
much worse when we avoid, suppress, or deny these feelings. Our bodies are built to have these experiences. It is nature’s way of letting us know that something is out of balance in our lives. Think of negative emotions as similar to various physical symptoms, such as back pain, stomach pain, headaches, and dizziness. These symptoms serve as “signals” that a medical problem may exist. Negative emotions also serve as signals that “a problem exists.” To be a successful problem solver, we must learn to listen to these signals.

So, it is not having the negative feelings in the first place that is the concern—it is when such emotional reactions continue to persist and intensify that significant difficulties can occur! We can assume that the occasional headache is likely to go away without visiting a physician. But avoiding persistent and intense headaches is likely to lead to major medical problems. Similarly, denying or avoiding persistent feelings of anger, sadness, tension, guilt, or frustration is also likely to lead to major problems. 

The good news is that SSTA is a skill set that you can learn! Note that we are not suggesting that you stop having negative feelings or thoughts (that would make you a robot). Instead, you need to become more aware of your feelings, pay attention to what they are “telling” you, and minimize the negative impact they can have on your ability to solve problems. Combining your logical thinking with your emotions can lead to wisdom.
We know that emotions are universal and part of the hardwiring of our brains and bodies. They are rich sources of information that lets us know what makes life worthwhile (for example, joy, nurturing, and passion) or what threatens our survival (for example, fear, anger, and panic). When emotions are negative and overwhelming, there are many ways people attempt to regulate them—some “good” and some “bad.”

Certain ineffective ways to manage negative emotions include the following:

• Excessively drinking 
• Denying such feelings
• Avoiding dealing with the problem
• Taking your anger out on someone/something else
• Thinking about suicide 


Certain effective ways include the following:


• Selecting those situations that do not set off triggers
• Changing the situation so your “buttons” do not get pushed
• Distracting yourself and focusing your attention on something more positive
• Changing your thoughts-- “this is NOT a catastrophe—it’s a problem to be solved”
• Changing your physical stress reaction once a button does get pushed


Recent advances in the field of neuroscience have given us a glimpse of what it looks like when your brain is “under stress” and provides an explanation of why people often say that it seems as though it is not possible to change their emotional reactions. This is because emotions occur rapidly and mostly not in our conscious awareness. In other words, our emotional reactions occur so fast that we are unaware of what is happening. The phrase “my anger goes from 0 to 60 in seconds” captures this experience. We are often unaware of what we are  thinking (for example, why we got angry in the first place— we just got angry!). This can lead to a situation where our emotions “dictate” or influence our actions because we do not have  time to think logically or rationally. We might regret later what we did only when our arousal gets lower and we can think more rationally.

It really does take training to “slow down” one’s reactions because our brains have been wired to react quickly for survival. 
This fact is extremely important—understanding this idea can help us to remember that such intense emotional reactions are normal. Science has now taught us that this is part of our brains’ basic "operating instructions." If you experience intense feelings at times (such as sadness, anger, tension, guilt), you are NOT crazy, weak, or foolish— your brain has just been conditioned to react quickly. It is when we try to deny or avoid such reactions that it can linger and become more intense over time. It is just like avoiding a physical symptom, such as a headache or back pain, that can potentially lead to a major medical problem because we did little to prevent it from getting worse. 

There are clear, immediate, and nonconscious brain pathways that lead to the tendency toward immediate action to adapt and survive when different emotions are triggered. For example, when sadness is triggered, we experience the urge to isolate and shut down. When we feel joy, we experience the urge to laugh and connect. When feeling fear, there is a rapid brain process that leads us to want to fight, run away, or freeze. With regard to fear, the brain reacts this way irrespective of whether we are confronted with an actual life threatening situation. In other words, our brains react the same way whether we are afraid that a close relationship might soon end or if a burglar is pointing a gun at us. Thus, any stressful situation can activate this reaction. That is why we need to “train our brains” to “slow down” and give us a chance to think before we act!


Take a moment to write down a few examples that are your unique triggers, but NOT those that are actually life threatening. Examples might include feeling "disrespected," feeling lonely, or when someone cuts you off in traffic.  Unfortunately, the problem is that such triggers can often FEEL the same as life-threatening triggers because the brain is set up such that emotions are being triggered in your brain to make you react in a certain way (for survival!), unless you have managed to train your brain NOT to do so. 
The Learning Activity that follows will provide you with the specific steps to practice how to train your brain. The good news is that the brain is flexible and actually changes with new learning experiences.


To begin using these tools, visualize or imagine a current problem. Try to identify what you are experiencing-- your thoughts and any physical sensations. You may be feeling sad, lonely, hopeless, tense, tired, agitated, or lost. You may have negative thoughts that are being repeated over and over again in your head— you try in vain to stop such thoughts and think of something else, but can't. You may have difficulty remembering things or concentrating. You may even experience problems with sleep.

As you visualize this situation, picture yourself now applying the following steps to “STOP and SLOW DOWN.” Identify how you experience the stressful problem. It is a good idea to jot down on paper some of your reactions (in other words—EXTERNALIZE!)
Now, go through the following steps:
Step 1. STOP!
Notice the negative feelings you are experiencing. Often we recognize physical sensations before we notice our feelings or mood. For example, some people notice a lump in their throat, sweaty palms, tears welling up, or the urge to yell or drive fast. Other people have headaches, increased heart rate, or a flushed face when they are angry. What are your mood-related physical sensations? Where do you feel them in your body (for example, "butterflies” in your stomach, back pain, headaches, feeling just "plain lousy")? Notice your thoughts … what are you thinking? What are your worries? Remember that these sensations, thoughts, and feelings are all “signals” that a problem exists—that you need to STOP and SLOW DOWN before the “negative feeling train gets too far out of the station.”

Step 2. SLOW DOWN . . . 

Here are a few effective ways to help you to “slow down.” Choose those that you feel comfortable doing:


  • Count slowly from 1 to 20 (or from 20 to 1)

  • Visualize a “safe place”: Use your mind’s eye to imagine a very calming and relaxing scene such as a vacation you went on in the past-- below is the audio instructions (also included on the Problem-Solving Multi-Tasking page) to help you visualize a "safe place" 

  • Take three deep breaths: Breathe in slowly to a count of 3; breathe out slowly to a count of 3-- below is another audiotape to teach you how to use deep breathing to "turn down the volume"

  • Yawn (that's right, we said “yawn”): Brain scientists have found that yawning is a very powerful
    meditation technique because it relaxes and “cools down” the brain, stimulates alertness and
    concentration, and enhances pleasure. As most people are used to yawning spontaneously, it may feel a bit strange to force a yawn. However, doctors have found that if you go through the motions 
    and intentionally yawn slowly about 8 to 10 times (in other words “faking it”), you often begin to yawn spontaneously. Some people have found it helpful to yawn in front of a mirror. This technique requires very little time

  • Meditate or do other relaxation exercises: You may have learned how to meditate or to use various stress management exercises, for example, yoga; these techniques can be very helpful to help you to slow down when you are in a situation where you have extra time-- below is an audiotape to help you to learn how to meditate

  • Exercise: For example, take a walk that combines light exercise and meditation

  • Pray: If you are someone who holds to a particular religious faith or set of spiritual beliefs, prayer can also be a wonderful way to “slow down”

  • Can you think of something that has helped you to “slow down” in the past (e.g., listening to music, drinking a glass of water, talking to an understanding friend)?


Step 3. THINK
Think about what is going on or what you have learned that is making you feel this way. Use your feelings and physical arousal as “signals” that a problem is occurring. What is it? Why you are experiencing this emotional reaction? Is your reaction on par with the situation? Is it an “overreaction?” How big is the problem? Can it be changed? Say to yourself that “a problem exists.” Suggesting that feeling bad means that a problem exists is hardly rocket science, but acknowledging that there is a problem, or a dilemma that you are facing, is an important step toward managing it successfully.



  • Define the problem.

    • Identify a goal 

    • Identify obstacles to the goal

  • Think of different ways to help you overcome the obstacles to your goal

  • Decide upon an action plan

    • Consider the pros and cons of the possible consequences of each of these                                alternatives

    • Choose those that have the best likelihood of reaching your goal while                                      minimizing any negative consequences

    • Develop an action plan

  • Carry out your action plan as best you can

    • Check out what actually happens after you carry out your action plan

    • Troubleshoot and go through the steps again if you are unsatisfied with the outcome 

    • Reinforce yourself if you are satisfied with the outcome



Mindful Meditation
00:00 / 09:16
Deep Breathing
00:00 / 05:35
Visualization exercise
00:00 / 10:57
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