I recently posted on Instagram about my mindfulness practice, and have had a couple of followers ask that I talk more about it. What better way than a blog post?
I should start this off by saying that I am not a licensed health-care professional. I do identify as a mental health advocate, though, based on my own personal experiences with my own and loved ones’ mental health.
After hitting the lowest of lows of my major depressive episode a little over a year ago, I started intensive therapy that involved meeting three times a week in a group therapy setting. The curriculum of these sessions was based on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). The goal of this form of therapy is to provide individuals with concrete skills to manage painful emotions and conflict in relationships. There are four overarching components of DBT: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness.
But what really is DBT?
DBT is a cognitive-behavioral treatment that was developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan in the 1980s to treat individuals with borderline personality disorder. It is now become an effective treatment for depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. As Psychology Today states, “DBT is influenced by the philosophical perspective of dialectics: balancing opposites. The therapist consistently works with the individual to find ways to hold two seemingly opposite perspectives at once, promoting balance and avoiding black and white—the all-or-nothing styles of thinking. In service of this balance, DBT promotes a both-and rather than an either-or outlook. The dialectic at the heart of DBT is acceptance and change.”
The way that I would explain this is that I can have an emotion driven, “irrational thought,” but also can identify it as such. Think about how sometimes you can give your friend advice that you can’t give yourself. Even though I know the thought is irrational, it still causes me emotional distress.
Today I’m going to talk about mindfulness, and in the coming weeks will explore the other components of DBT. So – here we go!
What is mindfulness?
At its core, mindfulness is about being present and self-aware. To take it a step further, it is doing those things without being judgemental, without overthinking, and without invalidating your own experience in any way. Mindfulness is acceptance.
In the world we live in today, we really don’t spend a lot of time being mindfully present. We tend to disconnect from our actual experience to either live through someone vicariously on instagram, or just engage with our own thoughts rather than reality. Now, according to DBT theory, there are three states of mind that are in at varying times: emotional mind, logical mind, and lastly wise mind being the ideal state of mind. Wise mind is the combination of emotional and logical mind.
We use logical mind when we are doing concrete tasks, like math or putting together furniture from Ikea. Emotional mind, unsurprisingly, is the state of mind in which we feel our emotions and act from our emotional state. So things like acting out of anger or just plainly being impulsive.
Wise mind is somewhere in the middle. In wise mind, we are aware of our feelings in a non-judgemental way (mindfulness) and act in a way that is cognizant of our emotions and goals.
So what are the core skills of mindfulness?
Observe your thoughts, emotions and feelings without trying to change them. Recognize how you are responding to an event, and allow yourself to feel what you are feeling.
Whether just to yourself in your head, or using pen to paper – describe your experience. What physical manifestations did you experience? Rapid heart rate, crying, chest tightness? Where were you when this happened? What was the prompting thought? How did that thought make you feel? By describing in great detail your experience, you are able to show yourself a bit of empathy as well as later have a more firm grasp on your emotional response. Remind yourself here that feelings and thoughts are not facts (wise mind).
You might feel alone for example, but if you sit down and truly think about it there are people and support services that you can reach out to.
Be present. Experience things with all five of your senses. All the emotions to pass, and then engage with the present moment. This sounds easier than it really is, but that’s where a couple of techniques come into play.
Being more mindful
Being mindful involves being non-judgemental, practicing one-mindfulness, and being effective. Below are a couple of specific exercises to strengthen your practice of these things.
This is one of my personal favorites as it is very meditative, and engages your whole body. A typical body scan runs through each part of the body starting with the toes and working upwards. You pay attention to how each part of the body feels, focus your breathing to that area, and imagine the muscles of that area relaxing. Just search “body scan meditation” on YouTube and you will find many options. Below is one of my favorites. A body scan can be done at any time of day, but as it is really relaxing – it is most commonly practiced before sleep. This practice has really helped me with my insomnia.
Identify situations in your life where you are trying to do multiple things at one time. For me, my biggest problem area is mornings. I try to do my hair and makeup, pick out an outfit, maybe change the load of my laundry, make my lunch and make my breakfast all at the same time. Doing so is usually chaotic and just anxiety-provoking.
You may find that you also do this after work. Many times I come home and look at my apartment and realize all the things I need to do: make dinner, empty the dishwasher, fold my laundry, take the trash out… And I enter a fury of doing all things at once.
Another situation you may do this is when hanging out with loved ones. Now that most of us have smartphones, we feel the need to constantly to attend to the information that we have access to.
One mindfully means concentrating on one thing at a time, and completely experience it by engaging all of your senses. When you are eating, eat. When you are walking, walk. When you are worrying, worry. When you are remembering, remember. Observe and listen quietly, and then reflect on your experience afterwards. Below are a couple of things that you can do one mindfully. One of my favorites is making coffee. My therapist taught me to approach it like it’s a scientific experiment – which really helped me to think of how to approach one-mindfulness. I really honed in on my observation skills.
- watch rain falling
- watch a campfire
- listen to music
- fold your laundry
- make your dinner
- make your coffee 🙂
- listen to a loud clock
- listen to the sound of the wind
- pick a place in your home, or a chair that will be your “worry space,” when ever you are worried about something, sit there and worry. Observe how you feel for 30 minutes, then allow yourself to go about the rest of your day.
- go for a walk to a park. sit, close your eyes, and try to identify 3-4 sounds you can hear. Can you identify from what direction they came from? Try to make out 2-3 smells from the air. Do those smells remind you of anything? Reflect.
Remember play-doh? Well go get you some play-doh. It is one of my favorite mindfulness mediums. Sit and play, create. Focus on how it feels and what it reminds you of. You can also practice mindful creating doing any sort of activity or craft that you like. I find crocheting to also be a super mindful activity.
Play a mindfulness game
I have an excellent support system, and sometimes when I’m in a bad place I just really need to be around people. There are a couple of games that we used in play in my group session that are really fun. They are mindfulness games because they require a lot of attention. Here are some examples:
- Categories – pick a category and list as many items from that category as possible.
- The alphabet game – pick a category and go around circle (or back and forth) listing items from that category starting with A-Z. So for fruit it would go, Apple, Banana, Cantaloupe…etc.
- Play catch! You can also integrate playing catch to either of the games above. Throw a ball back and forth while you name items.
- Play 20 questions with a friend
- Play Jenga or complete a puzzle
This exercise can feel a bit weird, but it has been shown to improve mood. But basically, sit in a chair or somewhere comfortable. Take a couple of deep breaths. Close your eyes if you wish. As you continue to breathe, make a small smile with your lips. Then relax your face. Continue to alternate and notice whether your emotions begin to change as you communicate feelings of acceptance to your brain.
Go forth, and live mindfully!
I hope that this post has been moderately helpful. I would love to hear about your experiences with some of these exercises. Lookout for future posts on DBT techniques.