Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Emotion Regulation

How to "STOP" Impulsive Behaviors

By practicing these DBT skills, you can develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Key points

  • Many people struggle to avoid impulsive behaviors when feeling strong emotions.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy specializes in helping people increase emotion regulation and limit impulsivity.
  • Two DBT skills can be particularly helpful for avoiding self-destructive behaviors.

Panic, rage, lust, depression, humiliation, joy—strong emotions can lead to impulsive behaviors. When you are emotional, you might feel intense physical agitation. That agitation can be very uncomfortable, causing you to do whatever you can to make the emotion go away. Even pleasant emotions can come with intense agitation and urges to act in ways that cause problems.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) was designed to help people decrease impulsive behaviors and cope more effectively with intense emotions. One of the primary ways it helps is by teaching dozens of coping skills.

Two DBT skills to help reduce impulsive behaviors

One of these skills is called the "STOP" skill, and its purpose is to help you avoid acting impulsively when in an emotional crisis. STOP is an acronym for a set of skills: Stop, Take a Step Back, Observe, and Proceed Mindfully. Obviously, just stopping is much easier said than done. I recommend combining it with another powerful DBT skill: "Cope Ahead."

Cope ahead is an emotion regulation skill that can increase emotional resilience by preparing you for difficult situations ahead of time. To cope ahead, you first identify a potential future situation that you expect to be emotionally painful, stressful, or triggering. You then craft a coping plan for skillfully responding to the situation.

Finally, you repeatedly rehearse or visualize yourself coping effectively with the situation according to your chosen coping plan.

When you feel emotions strongly, it can seem like there's no "pause" between your impulsive urge and impulsive behavior. That's where coping ahead to STOP can help. With cope ahead's repeated practice, you're more likely to automatically STOP and respond the way you want to respond when emotionally overwhelmed.

How to Cope Ahead for STOP

Follow the steps below, combining the typical instructions for the cope ahead and STOP skills, as described in the DBT skills manual. This post provides some ideas and examples of what your STOP could entail, but these are just suggestions. It would be best if you created your plan according to your specific impulsive urges, needs, and preferences.

1. Identify the triggering situation. Is there a type of situation that usually triggers your impulsive behaviors? Describe it in detail. Identify the who/what/where/when information and what emotions, physical sensations, or thoughts you will be experiencing. Identify the specific impulsive urge you expect to have. (Note: It could be triggering for you to think about these situations. Make sure you have your coping skills ready to use before or as you practice this coping ahead.)

2. Identify how you'd stop in the future triggering situation. At this first step in STOP, you want to stop, pause, and not react. How could you do that? Remember: To cope ahead, you want to be as specific as possible about what it would look like for you to stop. Common techniques: Say "stop" out loud or yell it in your head. Hold your hand out in a "stop" gesture. Picture a stop sign in your mind.

3. Identify how you'd "Take a Step Back." This STOP step asks you to move away from your impulsive behavior or trigger. So, as an example, if you're having urges to binge eat, you could walk out of the kitchen. Other ideas: Step away from something or someone. Turn your body, head, or eyes away. Turn off your phone or laptop. Tightly shut your mouth, cross your arms, or sit on your hands.

4. Identify how you'd "Observe." This step asks you to observe your situation before making a decision or acting mindfully. Some ideas: meditate, practice paced breathing, or stretch your body. Describe the facts of the situation, labeling your emotions, sensations, or urges. Self-validate.

5. Identify how you'd "Proceed Mindfully." At some point, you'll (probably) have to respond to the trigger. Identify what coping skills you will use to regulate your nervous system or reduce painful emotions. Think about how you could problem-solve, assert your needs, or address the trigger effectively. This final stop step is about acting skillfully, whatever that means to you.

6. Identify your ideal outcome for the situation. What would it look like for the situation to end exactly as you wanted it to? How would you want to act and feel? Possibilities include coping without hurting yourself or someone else and increasing intimacy or connection with someone. Self-validating or standing up for yourself in a way you're completely proud of and feeling relief, happiness, pride, warmth, or hope.

7. Practice your coping plan in your head. Write out your coping plan, and imagine yourself following it perfectly. If you can picture things in your mind, visualize what it would be like to avoid acting on your impulsive urges successfully. If you can't visualize, repeatedly read your coping plan to yourself, or record yourself reading it out loud and repeatedly listen to the recording.

8. Physically prepare for crisis and reward yourself. If you identified anything in the above steps that you can prepare ahead of time, make sure you do so. Get your coping skill tools ready. Also, make sure you practice self-soothing or relaxation techniques after mentally rehearsing. Imagining stressful situations can evoke the same emotions that experiencing stressful situations can. Be kind to yourself.

Don't be discouraged if you still act impulsively after rehearsing your "STOP Cope Ahead Plan." That's normal. Behavior change is hard. If you engage in impulsive behaviors, think about what happened. How did you follow your cope ahead plan (or not)? What did your original coping plan forget, miss, or underestimate? Review and refine your plan. Over time, this refinement will act like further practice and help you reduce impulsive behaviors.

This post was previously published here. The information in this post is for psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for the professional advice provided by your licensed mental health provider.

Facebook image: To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Kiki Fehling Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today