You're beginning to have a panic attack at work - your breathing is strained, your chest is tight, and sweat is beading on your brow. You feel confused, scattered, your energy splintered in a million directions. Before you know it, you've misplaced a vital document which is needed at an upcoming meeting, had a disagreeable exchange with your boss, and snapped at someone on the phone. You seem to have lost your presence of mind, you feel disconnected to your body, and everything you do seems to be a brittle reaction to the challenges of your day.
At such moments - and we all have them -a simple exercise in awareness can totally shift the energy and change your perspective. STOP is a four-part exercise that anyone can do at any time. It takes about one minute to complete. It goes like this:
(S)top. Stop what you are doing - if you're reaching for the phone to call someone, stop. If you're about to walk down the hall, just stop. If you're reading a report, put it down. Just stop whatever it is that you're doing.
(T)ake a breath. If it feels comfortable, gently allow the eyes to close. Then follow your breath at the abdomen as it enters the body and as it leaves - breathing in and knowing that you're breathing in, and breathing out and knowing that you're breathing out. Do this for 30 seconds without trying to do anything else. Just breathe.
(O)bserve. Observe exactly how you are in this moment - notice how the breath is, whether it's tight or open, long or short, notice whatever physical sensations are most predominant, and notice what emotions might be present. It's very helpful to name the sensations and emotions - you can silently say to yourself, “tightness, " “tense, " or “anxiety, " “anger", “frustration, " etc. Whatever is present is totally okay -don't judge the experience, just acknowledge it honestly and with an attitude of kindness towards yourself.
(P)roceed. Now that you've acknowledged with complete honesty how your are in this moment, you have instantly reconnected yourself to the present moment, and body and mind have a closer connection. You feel more space surrounding your difficulties, and you are ready to face the next moment with more awareness, authenticity and effectiveness.
When we cultivate an attitude of spaciousness around our stress, we become free of the habitual thought patterns and emotional turmoil that trap us in negative reactivity - by simply acknowledging how we are and tuning in to the breath and body, we are aligning ourselves with a wider perspective that lets us relax our grip. With that broader perspective, we are also able to make wiser choices about how to respond 3/4 rather than react - to the challenges of the day. And the beauty of STOP is that you can do it throughout the day, whenever you notice stress building up or your presence of mind has diminished.
William Scheinman is a mindfulness meditation trainer and co-founder of Stress Reduction At Work, which provides mindfulness training at company worksites. http://www.stressreductionatwork.com