When my colleague Steven Saul and I were developing the Mindfulness-Based Substance Abuse Treatment (MBSAT) 12-Session Curriculum at a juvenile detention camp, we had a number of conversations about the pros and cons of using cognitive acronyms as strategies to promote mindfulness and general self-awareness. He was more open to cognitive techniques given some of his previous training in cognitive and behavioral therapies (CBT) and I was more reserved given my training existential, humanistic, and somatic methods. We discussed how cognitive acronyms (which have been around much longer than the recent onslaught of mindfulness-based acronyms) may or may not help the youth we worked with and piloted a number of them with our groups. At first youth didn’t seem engaged and almost scoffed at the idea. Then, time and again we’d hear something along the lines of:
“You know that STIC acronym you taught us? I didn’t think it was gonna work, but I tried it last night and it worked!”
As we tweaked and polished the curriculum we conducted a process research study and interviewed a number of youth about the their experiences with mindfulness and meditation. I’ll never forget one youth who, living at a detention camp in which he was allowed to go home on the weekends (in exchange for good behavior) said this when asked if any of the mindfulness strategies were helpful:
“I aint gonna lie. I was supposed to not come back to camp, and I was supposed to hit the blunt [marijuana], when I was in the house. ‘Cause my boy, when we got back to the house, he was out there rolling a blunt. I ain’t gonna lie, once I seen him in the wheelchair, I already knew I was gonna do something; drink, or something . . . I used STIC. I kinda looked at him and I took a deep breath, and just calmed down, sat down, and I was like, ‘damn man, it’s good to see you.’ But at the same time I was really thinkin’ about the blunt. He was like, ‘you gonna smoke?’ I was like, ‘nah, I’m good.’ he was like, ‘fool, what the fuck? Since when do you say no?’ I felt more me, doing me…”
[If you’re interested in reviewing the full study from which the except is a quote, click here or contact us for a copy]
What initially and still do this day when I share this experience in trainings struck me was this young man’s ability to abstain from using substances and AWOLing from the detention camp after seeing his childhood friend in a wheelchair for the first time (who’d been shot in the back). That’s how powerful some of these acronyms can be. Yes, it takes practice, and yes, you should discuss explicit situations with youth where these techniques could be applied and explicit situations where such techniques may NOT be skillful (i.e., if someone is winding up to throw a punch and they try to employ one of these strategies, they WILL get punched in the face!).
Discussing the situations in which they’re not useful grounds the strategy in realness and gives young people a sense of where they can be used. Over time I became a champion of these strategies and I always suggest to youth that the way to get the most out of cognitive acronyms is to repeat the meaning of the acronym frequently.
I like to print STIC and other acronyms on business cards to pass out to youth, so they leave with something tangible they can put in their pocket. The more they remind themselves of the meaning of the acronym, and better yet, the more they rehearse in their mind situations in which they can use them, the more likely they’ll be able to use it in a real time of need. Many youth still aren’t that receptive at first and I still find that it takes the real life experience of using one for a young person to come back to me and tell me it worked (So be patient if youth aren’t receptive the first time you teach these concepts. Planting seeds is still useful).
Here are 10 acronyms to promote decision-making, mindfulness, and broader self-awareness with young people. The first 6 promote mindful awareness for decision-making abilities, while the last 4 promote general and specific areas of self-awareness.
STOP stands for Stop, Take a breath, Observe, and Proceed. This comes from the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) literature and is probably the most widely known. The first step is to actually stop what one is doing (e.g., if you’re moving, stop moving, if your mind is racing, tell yourself to stop, etc.). Next comes the “T” and take a breath and pause. The “O” is the observing of one’s experience (e.g., noticing anger, frustration, pain, etc.), and finally the “P” suggests you proceed with a next step that you see fit after pausing and checking in with yourself. The below acronyms follow similar processes.
TAP stands for Take a breath, Acknowledge, and Proceed. This is a technique I often teach to adults working with youth to manage their own stress/frustration/discomfort when working with youth in our Trauma-Informed Care for Professionals Working With Youth online course and MBSAT Training. While the “T” and “P” relate to the above STOP, the “A” represents the ability to acknowledge one’s experience (e.g., “I’m frustrated right now”) and the ability to acknowledge another’s experience (to empathize) if the experience has to do with another person (as it mainly does for teachers, counselors, etc.).
SOBER stands for Stop, Observe, Breath, Expand, and Respond. This was developed by Sarah Bowen and Alan Marlatt in the Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) curriculum, which is in part based on MBSR and is great to teach youth who are wanting to stay sober from substances.
STIC stands for Stop, Take a breath, Imagine the future consequences, and Choose. My colleague Steven Saul created this for our MBSAT 12-Session Curriculum with the idea of helping youth “STIC to their plan” for transforming their lives when they were released from custody.
SNAPP stands for Stop, Notice, Allow, Penetrate, and Prompt. This was created by Mitch Abblet of the Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy. Read more about this technique here.
RAIN stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Non-Identification. To my knowledge this was created by Tara Brach and is a great way to teach youth that they are not their thoughts and feelings (e.g., dis-identification).
COAL stands for Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance, and Love. This was created by Dan Siegel and is a great way for youth to remind themselves of the power of love and acceptance. Though a practice like this isn’t for everyone, I’ve used similar practices with traumatized and incarcerated youth and have seen positive results.
This is another of Dan Siegel’s acronyms (he likes acronyms!). SIFT stands for Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts. This is great technique for youth to scan and get acquainted with their subjective experience.
Probably one of the oldest acronyms in the addiction world is HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. Individuals are encouraged to halt and ask themselves if they experience any of these primitive experiences prior to reacting. This is a great way to teach self-awareness for some of the most triggering experiences.
There are of course, many other acronyms that might be useful in your work with young people. I suggest piloting some of the above with the youth you work with, and/or a GREAT creative practice is to develop something catchy, witty, and memorable with the youth themselves. If it comes from them, they’ll most likely use it when in need!
What other self-awareness acronyms would you add to this list?