Stop, Drop, and Breathe: How to Turn the Tables on Relentless Stress
There’s a slogan we’ve been told to remember if our clothes catch on fire: Stop, Drop, and Roll.
Stop Where You Are
Running does not put out the fire. In fact, it does the opposite; it adds oxygen. By running, you’re literally ‘fanning the flames!’
Drop to the Ground
Lie down and cover your face with your hands.Your body will smother part of the fire against the ground. Since fire burns upward, dropping to a horizontal position keeps the fire from engulfing you.
Roll Over and Over
Keep rolling your body back and forth until all the flames are smothered against the ground and the fire is completely out.
“Catching on fire” is a good metaphor for being overwhelmed by stress. When we are in a stressful situation, our energy moves up into our head (like fire burns upward) and moves faster (like trying to run away in panic).
It feels like we’re totally in our heads with thoughts racing. In a way, our brain has caught fire!
Stress Affects Our Mind Like Fire
In times of crisis, stress can be so relentless that we don’t recognize its impact on our state of being. It’s like not realizing your clothes are on fire!
Here’s a similar slogan you can remember to help put out the stress-fire: Stop, Drop, and Breathe.
Stop What You’re Doing
Running around, chasing your own tail, only fans the stress-fire flames. Cut your mental momentum with a sudden stop.
Drop Your Thoughts
Stop what you’re thinking about, the whole story line, and let your mind drop deep into your body, to the core of your torso if you can. Getting out of your head and into your body starts to smother the stress-flames.
Breathe Deeply and Slowly
Feel the movement of your lower torso as the breath flows in and out. The breath rolls in and out, back and forth, until the stress-fire is extinguished.
Seven to ten full, deep breaths (that take less than a minute) are often enough to tamp down the stress-fire. With practice, you can do pretty well with three breaths. Sometimes even one breath is helpful to create a break in the momentum of your stressful thinking and activity.
With even more practice, you can learn to take a big step in regaining your equilibrium in just one breath.
The Great Interrupter
One of my students asked, “But my mental speed and momentum don’t seem to have any gaps. What can I do to remember to Stop, Drop, and Breathe?”
Good question! In Zen monasteries, each day someone has the job of ringing the great temple bell to call everyone to meditation. But the person is also told to ring the bell at several random times during the day.
Upon hearing the bell, everyone in the monastery stops what they are doing, drops the story line of their thinking, and takes at least seven full, deep breaths before they go back to their tasks.
Breathing Prompts and Reverse Meditation
We don’t live in monasteries with temple bells, but we do get signals at random times throughout the day, such as our phones’ ringtones. Unfortunately, our response when we hear the ringtone of a call or text is the knee-jerk stress reaction of a scramble for the phone.
Here’s the great switcheroo: Your ringtone can be your “temple bell” There is a term for this in the mindfulness tradition: reverse meditation. You are reversing what is usually a cause for stress and turning it into an opportunity for a meditative moment.
Whenever you hear the ringtone of a phone call or beep of a text: Stop, Drop, and Breathe. You can certainly take one full, deep breath (maybe two or three) before answering a call. And a text doesn’t require you to instantly respond (though some people think so!), leaving you time for as many breaths as you feel you need right then.
There are more “temple bell” signals than just calls and texts. Sounds and pop-ups from emails, app posts, or calendar notifications come in on your phone, tablet, or computer. Take their arrival as a notification that it’s time to breathe!
Frozen in Time
Another reverse meditation can be done when your computer is processing – and processing, and processing. Instead of responding with irritation and impatience when the little circle is going round and round and your screen is frozen, use it as an opportunity to Stop, Drop, and Breathe! Get in a few deep breaths and reduce your stress!
If you’d like, use other sounds in everyday experience as your “temple bell.” Take a breath or two before answering your doorbell or responding to the beep of the toaster oven or microwave. One breath before you get your food will help you eat more slowly and mindfully, and I promise you’ll enjoy it more!
When you pull up and stop at a red light, use it as a signal for a really important and helpful reverse meditation. Instead of gritting your teeth in frustration at the delay and getting ready to floor it when the light turns: Stop, Drop, and Breathe!
It’s of more benefit than checking your texts, and you won’t have the car behind you honking at you when the light turns green.
As a health precaution, we’re told to wash our hands often and do so for at least 20 seconds. Instead of counting out the seconds (or singing happy birthday twice), use your breathing to time yourself – that’s about how long it takes for five or six deep breaths.
You’ll be sure you’ve washed your hands properly and have the added bonus of deep breathing to douse the flames of stress-fire.
As time goes on, you’ll find other opportunities to practice mindfulness through breathing. And as the turbulence of stress calms, more clarity about your thoughts, feelings, and actions will emerge, enabling you to make choices that create greater benefit for yourself and others.
Dr. Joseph Parent is a highly regarded expert in Applied Mindfulness and Performance Psychology. He is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, performance coach, and media commentator.
Have you noticed when you feel the most stressed? What do you do to interrupt stress-fire? Have you considered taking deep breaths? Please share in the comments below.