How to do the STOP process

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The STOP process is a simple, practical method to work with unhelpful thought patterns that perpetuate our stress.

For me it’s been one of the most important tools for getting into a healing state, and one of the absolute foundations of recovery.

Our minds chatter away all the time with a stream of thoughts about the past and the future. Some are helpful, but many are unnecessary sources of stress. They often have no relation to what’s actually going on and it can feel like we’re stuck in a loop of worry.

When we examine our thoughts, we start to see that we have patterns that come up repeatedly. You might, like me, get anxious thought patterns, replaying old memories or creating imagined future catastrophes. Or you might, also like me, get thoughts about all the things you feel you should be doing and aren’t or can’t, making you feel inadequate. There are many other patterns that you might have, such as a critical inner voice judging you harshly, or depressive thoughts.

We likely know this already: it’s clear that our psychological patterns perpetuate stress, but it’s not clear how to break them or come to a healthier balance. That’s where the STOP process comes in.

The STOP process is a way of recognising these thought patterns and stepping out of the worry loop. Over time, we also retrain our mind to take more constructive paths.

How to do the STOP process

This is a simple and flexible version of the stop process. There are alternative and more detailed versions that are also worth experimenting with, but the most important thing is getting started and making it into a habit.

The STOP Process:

  1. Recognise an unhelpful thought pattern is playing
  2. Say ‘stop’ out loud
  3. Make a physical ‘stop’ gesture
  4. Recognise your choice: continue with the thought, or stop
  5. Come to the present moment
  6. Congratulate yourself


It takes practice to recognise thought patterns in the moment, so don’t expect to immediately jump to this. Start by just doing the process at set times of day, whatever is happening in your mind, to get used to the process. Once up and running, try to recognise your thought patterns in retrospect. After a few days, it will become easier to see the same patterns happening again, e.g. ‘I’m ruminating again’. Writing a thought diary can also help uncover recurring patterns, making them easier to spot them in real time.

Say ‘stop’ assertively, i.e. clearly and calmly, at moderate volume. Not loud or angry - we aren’t judging or criticising. Instead, speak like you would to a misbehaving child, remembering that you are in control of yourself and your mind. You can say this in your head when around others, but start by saying it aloud. Try out alternative worlds such as ‘pause’ or ‘calm’ to see if you find them more effective.

The physical ‘stop’ gesture involves putting both hands up in a ‘stop’ position, i.e. palms facing away from you. Try different versions to see what feels most powerful: two hands, one hand, arms crossed. You can also do a ‘pressing pause on a remote control’ gesture with your thumb and forefinger. I like this especially because it can be done discreetly in public, or with your hand in a pocket. You can also imagine yourself doing a gesture if around others, but again start out with real physical movements.

Recognising the choice we have means becoming aware of the state that the though pattern is creating in our body - perhaps stress or tension - and deciding if we want to continue with that or not.

To break the pattern, the simplest way is to come to the present moment through mindfulness. Move your attention to your breath; the rise and fall of your stomach, or your breath coming in and out of your nose. Maintaining focus on this for a short while brings us back to the present moment and out of the thought pattern loop.

It sounds odd to congratulate yourself, but it really does make a difference. Praise counterbalances negative thought patterns, rewards the habit you are forming and helps build trust with your body. It can be as simple as saying ‘good work!’. Try it and see how it feels.

Building the habit

At the start, and for quite a while (at least a month for me), it won’t be natural to do this. It only works if it’s done regularly, because our thought patterns are regular occurrences, so to create the habit, set an alarm for multiple times a day and do the STOP process whatever is happening, even if you don’t have any thought patterns at the moment. It only takes a few minutes, and you can do it in your head if there are people around, or go to a private space. I set an alarm every hour during the day when I started, and without that it wouldn’t have stuck.

Stubborn thought patterns can return quickly or even immediately, so you may need to do the process repeatedly. Sometimes we have an overwhelming tide of thoughts, and that’s just how it is. If you’ve done the STOP process a few times and the thoughts are still coming back, that’s ok. Thank yourself for the effort you’ve put in and go and have a cup of tea. Over time, things will start to shift.

It’s important not to criticise yourself, especially when it gets frustrating: a critical voice in your head is likely just another thought pattern to tackle. The patterns we have may have been useful and appropriate when they first started, and can be deeply ingrained. We’re aiming for a state of calm, not of judgement.

Be patient with progress. It works cumulatively, it’s not a one time thing. We will still get these patterns regularly. We aren’t switching our mind off, we’re just giving ourself the option to recognise unhelpful patterns in the moment and step out of their loop.

Once we get this ingrained as a habit, it becomes a huge relief to have a way of stepping out of the familiar mental loops that trap us, and I’m deeply grateful to have this tool. After using the process for a few years, I find myself sometimes laughing at the same patterns when they return, in a ‘here I go again’ way. That’s a great way of not taking yourself and your mind so seriously, which helps loosen their power over you and lets you just be present in the world.