One of the most important parts of DBT (Dialectic Behavior Therapy), is learning to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is sort of buzz word these days. and I’ve discovered different people can mean different things when they say they practice mindfulness, so I’m just going to explain what I mean by mindfulness which I think is pretty close to what DBT means by it, although it’s always possible to misread things when you have so many ideas bombarding you from the media and various self-help outlets.
Since DBT’s main purpose is to help people regulate their emotions, mindfulness plays a key part. in that process. It allows a person to stay grounded in the moment, to stay in touch with each moment’s reality, and by staying in touch with the here and now, helping us take time to breathe and gain control of emotional reactions.
Goals of Mindfulness (in DBT)
- reduce suffering (we can’t reduce life events, but we can reduce our responses to life events which can alleviate some of our suffering)
- reduce anxiety, tension, stress
- increase control of your mind by decreasing worrying, overthinking, ruminating
At this point you may be asking, “What is mindfulness?”
My short definition is that mindfulness is intentional awareness of the present moment. It shouldn’t be confused with mindlessness (or emptying the mind). It’s a matter of focus to keep you grounded in the here and now. Observation is the goal, not relaxation.
There are a lot of mindfulness practices that are taught and even apps to help lead people through the process of being mindful. One of my favorite parts about practicing mindfulness, however, is that can be practice anywhere at any time.
- washing dishes
- listening to music
I remember a popular book in the 70s called Be Here Now. The title is basically the whole idea of mindfulness. Be here. In this moment. Fully experience it.
Choose one of the items on the above list and next time you do it, take a couple of deep slow breaths. Then focus on your body’s sensations. Are you washing dishes? Feel the warmth of the water on your hands. Does it feel good? Is the water too hot? Too cold? Feel the sensation of bubbles on your lower arms. Does it tickle? Do they feel soft? Smell the scent of dishwashing liquid. What smell is it? Lemon? Orange? Listen to the sounds of the water running into the sink from the faucet. Is it a soft trickle?
If you find yourself being distracted by thoughts or emotions, just acknowledge the thought/emotion, and focus on your breathing and other sensations again. The goal isn’t to never have your mind wander or never to experience emotions or never have thoughts. The goal is just be mindful of the present moment. I’m washing dishes. The water is warm. I just had a thought that I need to pick up popcorn at the store. I refocused my thoughts back to the dishes.
The purpose of practicing mindfulness throughout the day when you’re not under stress or feeling strong emotions is so that when you actually are in heightened emotional state, the skills will have become almost second-nature through your on-going practice of the skills.
Every week in our DBT classes, we practice at least two mindfulness activities together. Last week we did a mindful eating activity. A bowl of snack items was passed around, everyone chose one, and then we proceeded to mindfully eat our item. Mine was a small wrapped chocolate candy bar. We were to look at the food item as if we were an alien from outer space who’d never seen it before. What did the wrapper look like? Was it shiny? Dull? What colors? Where there designs on it? What did the wrapper feel like? Smooth? Ridged? What was it like opening the wrapper? What did it feel like? Did it make a sound? Did you smell anything? Take the candy out of the wrapper. What does it look like? Smell like? Examine it thoroughly like you did with the wrapper. Take a tiny bite. Don’t chew or swallow. What does it feel like in your mouth? Smooth? Hard? Rough? Does it melt in your mouth? Allow yourself to slowly move it around in your mouth, and when ready, chew and swallow, also noticing the processes of chewing and swallowing.
So that probably seems like a long even just to take a single bite of a candy bar. It actually only took about two or three minutes.
When we did this in class last week, I’d arrived at class a couple of minutes late, I’d had a stressful morning, and I was even a bit out of breath from walking quickly into the building from my car.
After doing the mindful eating exercise, I realized I was calm and ready to be fully engaged in the class. Mindful eating grounded me in the moment, and allowed me to focus on something so intently, that it gently pushed aside the stresses of the morning. My breathing was calm, my mind felt focused, my felt grounded.
It was such a simple thing, but it worked wonders. I knew about the idea of mindful eating, but I’d always thought of it as a trick for eating more slowly and thoughtfully to use as a dieting technique. Now I see it can also be used as regular mindfulness technique to bring down heightened emotional and physical stress-related responses.
As I share things I’ve learned and experience through DBT classes, I’ll probably return to this idea of mindfulness frequently, sharing examples of various ways it’s proven helpful to me.
Thoughts? Questions? Have you had any experience with mindfulness practice?