Stop Breathe Believe—Mindful Living One Thought at a Time
By Dianne Morris, LMHC, CDWF-C
At some point in our lives most of us will experience guilt, trauma, problems of self-acceptance, or feeling out of control, but for burn survivors these difficult emotions can present a daily struggle. Recovery is a whole-person process that encompasses the physical, mental, and emotional, and at times the challenges may feel insurmountable. It’s in times like these that we need a simple, reliable tool that can shine a clear light through the storm.
Stop Breathe Believe® is a mindfulness-based practice that was developed to help us navigate such difficult moments. Mindfulness-based practices are built from the premise that our thoughts directly affect our perceptions and experiences, which is why such techniques as meditation, deep breathing, and using a mantra can be so effective in decreasing stress, relieving pain, enhancing sleep, and reducing hospital stays.
Stop Breathe Believe works by enabling us to become aware of and stop any self-defeating thoughts that are preventing us from living life fully, breathe our way to a state of calm openness, and then proactively choose to believe in a compassionate self-talk statement that addresses our unique situation.
There are so many things in life we can’t control—burn survivors know this truth acutely, and they know it on a daily basis. When the physical pain is most intense, even things that seemed so easy before, such as reading, enjoying a movie, or sleeping, can be a struggle. The emotional pain is no less real, as survivors mourn the loss of their old way of life and become accustomed to a “new normal.” The recovery process can be a long one, and sometimes survivors wonder if they’ll ever feel whole again.
But we can control the way we respond to even the most trying situations, and that begins with becoming aware of the thinking that’s precipitating our actions. The practice of Stop Breathe Believe is a tool that can help you get through those moments when it feels like your world has been turned upside down.
The Stop Breathe Believe Basics
Stop: At a moment when you find yourself struggling, stop what you’re doing and become aware of what you’re thinking. You may even want to address yourself aloud in order to cease the stream of thoughts that’s constantly going through your mind: “Stop, Brenda.” “Stop, Stephen.” Speak to yourself with kindness but firmness. Now, notice what’s going on in your mind. Whatever thought you find, simply become aware of it, noting it without judgment. In keeping with the stoplight metaphor, in therapy sessions we often talk about “red thoughts” and “green thoughts.” A frequent red thought I hear is some variation on “I’ll never get through this.” Let’s work with this red thought as we move on to Breathe.
Breathe: As you are able, change your physical position. If your legs are crossed, uncross them and put your feet flat on the floor. Sit up straight so you are able to make use of your lungs’ maximum capacity. Now, breathe in slowly through the nose and count as you breathe in, and at the top of the breath exhale through the mouth and count as you breathe out. The numbers themselves don’t matter—they’re a way to bring awareness to your breath and to get you breathing slowly and deeply from the diaphragm. You should feel your belly expand with each inhalation. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to relax the body—your heart rate slows, your respiratory rate slows, your muscles loosen, and pain can recede. During Breathe, even if it’s for just a moment, you’re redirecting your attention away from the red thought you noticed during Stop. You can rest in the Breathe portion of Stop Breathe Believe as long as you like.
Believe: When you feel ready, start to create a belief statement that truthfully addresses the red thought you observed during Stop. Keep your belief statement short and simple. Let’s recall our red thought: “I’ll never get through this.” An effective belief statement in this case could be: “I’m learning a new process that will help” or “I am an active participant in my own recovery.” One way to address any “never” red thought is by utilizing the same belief statement: “My now is always new.” You can use your belief statement as an anchor in the midst of a painful or difficult moment, or as a mantra to which you return throughout the day. You can also choose to tie your belief statement to your breathing, integrating it into your new, healthy mode of thinking with every breath. For example, inhale My injuries do not define me; exhale I’m learning a new process that will help.
Stop Breathe Believe works because it’s easy to learn, adaptable to any situation, and relies on our brains’ amazing neuroplasticity. Exciting developments in the field of neuroscience have demonstrated that behavior can form new neural pathways in the brain. What’s more, these changes can occur at any point in life. This is great news for anyone who’s dealing with trauma of any sort, and for anyone who feels stuck where they are. Can we make it? Can things ever get better? The answer is yes. One thought at a time, one neural pathway at a time, we can work through any obstacle, step by step making our way to healing. It doesn’t happen quickly, but even amid great struggle and trauma, with a regular practice of Stop Breathe Believe we can cultivate the power to say no to unhealthy, self-defeating thoughts. We can create belief statements that are healthy, empowering, and support the process of full recovery.
The Role of Self-Compassion
One facet you may notice while practicing Stop Breathe Believe is how harshly we often talk with ourselves. Any “red” thought with the word never in it provides a classic example: I’ll never get through this. I’ll never achieve that goal. I’ll never be the person I want to be. So in designing a healthy and compassionate “green” or belief statement, consider how you might respond to a good friend. Would you tell a beloved friend that she can never succeed? That he’ll never recover from an injury or a setback or a heartbreak? Of course not. We need to extend the same level of love and compassion to ourselves that we would to a dear friend. Self-compassion is the ability to speak to ourselves in a kind and supportive way.
Sadly, acts of basic self-care and self-comfort are challenging for many of us, as they can easily be mistranslated to “selfish” or “self-indulgent.” However, just as we would tend to a bodily injury, the same care is necessary for our emotional wounds. Left uncared for, our wounds, physical or emotional, cannot heal, and our suffering increases. The practice of Stop Breathe Believe encourages tender, firm, and caring responses to the negative, hurtful, and often unhealthy thoughts with which we are all too familiar. A touch of tenderness, a capsule of compassion, a moment of loving ourselves in a new way—these are all balms of healing for the inner chatter of our minds.
When we can stop and become aware of what is happening in our minds, there is incredible opportunity for healthy change in our thinking—and thus in our reactions, our struggles, our healing, our relationships, and in our overall lives.
May you let go of self-judgment as an invaluable act of self-kindness. May you begin to believe that you are worthy of caring for yourself as you would care for others. May you embrace acts of self-care as necessary to move past stuck places and live into full recovery. May you know in a new way the power of your thoughts, and may you never forget that you have the ability to choose what you say to yourself and create brand new neural pathways.
Even today, even now, just for a moment, stop what you’re doing, breathe deeply, and try out one of these belief statements: I am beginning to see myself as whole. I am learning to accept myself. I am worth the struggle to recover fully. I’m learning to love myself in a new way.
Join me on the journey of mindfulness and living fully into your unique you.
Stop. Breathe. Believe.
Dianne Morris Jones, LMHC, CDWF-C, is an individual and couple therapist and Certified Daring Way facilitator and consultant who practices in Des Moines, Iowa. She also is a speaker and author of Stop Breathe Believe: Mindful Living One Thought at a Time and I’m Fine, a real feelings journal.