Volume 1, Issue 1, January 2023
If you served in the military no matter what branch of service you were in, you learned at some point the importance of having space to maneuver. Whether you were maneuvering pairs of boots, a tank, a ship, or a fighter jet, having adequate physical space was essential to executing maneuver smoothly and safely. Likewise, when we encounter challenges in life, our minds need maneuver space to mentally negotiate difficult moments. This series will highlight each month a different brief cognitive tool that you can use in your daily life to potentially create more maneuver space. Remember having maneuver space, or space to think, is a gift in life. Once you create it, use it to your advantage!
The military teaches us how to do a variety of complex tasks by repetition. Building task confidence requires these repetitions often to be done in a deliberate sequence, one step after the other, to ensure you can build consistency.
Whenever I see a STOP sign at a four-way intersection, I am reminded about the importance of even doing simple things in a deliberate consistent sequence. When you are driving and you pull up to a STOP sign you must: 1) Press the break and come to a full stop, 2) Look each way to determine if it is safe, 3) Decide and signal which way you want to go, and 4) Proceed into the intersection with caution in the direction you desire. If you don’t do these four simple steps in a deliberate consistent sequence, there are potentially significant consequences. You can get in an accident, hurt yourself, or somebody else, and ultimately not successfully negotiate what is generally seen as a simple task.
I sometimes see challenges in life as four-way STOP signs. We therefore can often benefit from managing life challenges in a deliberate sequence to negotiate them successfully. The below STOP technique is modified from mindfulness practice where it is often seen. The four letters of the S.T.O.P sign can help remind us to create the maneuver space we may need to negotiate a given challenge in life.
S: Stop and Breath
P: Proceed with your Plan
S: Stop and Breath
Much like in a car, our bodies also have a braking system: breathing. More specifically abdominal, or diaphragmatic breathing, is the most effective breaking mechanism our bodies have. A good way to practice this is to put your hand on your stomach and take a deep breath filling all your chest cavity and abdomen for approx. 4 seconds. I like to think of the word ‘Calm’ when I do this step. Hold for two seconds, then breathe out for approx. 6 seconds. I like to think of the word ‘Relax’ when I do this step. Just like when you qualified with your weapon at the range, you were taught that slow deep full breaths helped you control your body and allowed you to successfully negotiate a complex task. Controlled abdominal breathing can help us lower our heart rate and often ultimately control the physical reaction our body and mind have to external stressors. It only takes a few moments to breathe, but it is essential to do this first before trying the next step.
Once you have gained back control of your body, you have now created a brief maneuver window to think. Thinking is what allows us to perform even highly complex tasks with consistent success. When you think you should be focused on identifying multiple alternatives for how you can negotiate whatever challenge you are facing. These become your options.
Options give us choices in life. They are a hedge against impulsivity. I always like to tell myself that if I can only come up with one option, that’s a good reminder that I need to return to thinking some more and identify at least 2-3 alternatives. Emotions can sometimes cloud our options and make us lean toward one while not considering others. If you find yourself stuck in this pattern, simply return to breathing and then thinking some more. The military taught us the importance of identifying different options, often referred to as courses of action. The more diverse your courses of action are–the better you will be at the last step.
P: Proceed with your Plan
As humans, generally once we can identify multiple options, we feel more confident picking one that will ideally give us the most favorable outcome. This becomes our plan and what we choose to proceed with. Usually, we don’t deliberately pick a plan that will give us a bad outcome. However, sometimes life challenges are complex and before we get to this step, we may have to do a significant amount of thinking and comparing options before we pick one.
Often intense emotions make our minds cut corners and we fail to remember the importance of doing things in deliberate sequence when it comes to negotiating life challenges. Reminding yourself about the importance of STOP can help create the maneuver space you need to pick the plan that is best for you. Creating even just a few brief moments of mental maneuver space, just like you did when you stopped your car at the four-way intersection, can be the difference between success and disaster.
Mr. Bongioanni is a licensed mental health counselor who also works for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He is a senior leader in the U.S. Army Reserve. His professional interests include human behavior, applied psychology, and military cultural competence. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
[i] Adapted From: Goldstein, E. (2013). The Now Effect: How a Mindful Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life. New York: Atria Books, 46.
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