Editor’s note: This article was sponsored by THIRA Health.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) focuses on four major components: interpersonal effectiveness, mindfulness, emotional regulation and distress tolerance. Self-soothing DBT mindfulness techniques can help you manage anxious, depressive, obsessive or intrusive thoughts. These coping skills can be used by anyone, anywhere and at any time.
What is mindfulness?
In a psychological context, mindfulness is defined as “nonjudgmental attention to the present moment.” Mindfulness as a therapeutic technique can be traced back to classic Buddhist practices. Rooted in concepts of meditation, the practice of mindfulness aims to promote intention, reflection, compassion and a nonjudgmental approach toward emotions.
So, what does that have to do with coping with sadness, anger, impulsiveness or frustration, and emotional regulation? Everything, actually.
Putting DBT skills to use increases our ability to regulate emotions with proven techniques for de-escalation and coping. Mindfulness, in particular, allows us to feel awareness and acceptance of our emotions. In mindfulness, we’re offered the time and space to feel and reflect on our emotions consciously instead of subconsciously. This allows us to understand our emotions better and act on them while pressing pause on our impulses.
Core facets of DBT mindfulness: ‘What’ and ‘how’ skills
DBT is divided into four skills categories, each of which addresses a core facet of a “life worth living”; these include emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance and mindfulness. The four DBT skills categories are further broken down into digestible skills that can be easily understood and implemented in daily life.
Mindfulness skills — the “what” skills, in particular — are rooted in the actionable steps of observing internal and external states, describing the present experience and participating fully in the present moment. DBT “how” skills complement the “what” skills perfectly, teaching us to engage in each moment nonjudgmentally, mindfully and effectively (or choosing to do what works).
Observing your thoughts and simply paying attention to your experience can help you better label the emotion, gauge the strength and duration of the feeling, and later, help overcome the grip of strong — sometimes painful — emotions, such as anxiety or sadness.
Next, describing your feelings is important in helping you recognize what environmental (or internal) events cue certain emotions and how exactly they make you feel; the act of describing can assist with identifying the exact emotion you are feeling in regard to the precipitating event. This is best described with the example of “I” statements, e.g., “I feel disappointed when I …” instead of “I am a disappointment.”
When we participate fully in the moment, we are operating counterculturally and immersing ourselves fully in the task before us. This skill rejects the idea of multitasking and asks us to become absorbed fully into the one thing that we are doing.
The first DBT “how” skill requires a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. Mastering this ability to perceive without emotionally reacting (no matter if the present moment is experienced as being positive or negative) helps us to interpret and label our feelings accurately to gauge an appropriate, thoughtful response. Often when we act on emotions alone, our reactions are fueled by an immediate impassioned reflex, which can lead to overreacting, impulsive behavior and emotionally charged decision-making. Even positive judgments are not always helpful to us, and this component of nonjudgmental awareness asks us to refrain from engaging the part of us that wants to categorize feelings and experiences in terms of “good” and “bad.”
The second “how” skill that suggests we engage in life one-mindfully is reminiscent of the “what” skill of participating fully. Whether we are watching our favorite show on Netflix or eating dinner, these skills ask us to resist the urge to also scroll on our phone or multitask while we move throughout our day.
Finally, choosing to lean into effectiveness and do what works allows us to tailor our approach to life and these skills based on our personal preferences. This skill affirms our individuality and empowers us to make decisions that are best for us. In building DBT mindfulness skills, we’re encouraged to act according to what’s proven to be helpful for us — and leave the rest behind.
Practicing mindfulness encompasses the rituals of “what” and “how” skills to create an awareness of emotions in the present moment. Such awareness of our emotions is the first step toward better control and verbalization of those feelings.
DIY DBT mindfulness exercises
Having a better understanding of DBT and its core facets sets an important foundation for effectively and successfully utilizing mindfulness exercises.
This practice allows us to turn off our autopilot setting. Instead, we can use the walk to quiet our minds. When walking, instead of thinking of work or your to-do list, focus only on your surroundings: your feet meeting the ground, sounds, smells, the sensation of a breeze. Given that mindfulness is rooted in the present moment, this is a very simple way to change your surroundings and practice observing and describing sensations.
5-finger hand trace
This exercise can be done virtually anywhere. Put your hand in front of you and spread your fingers. With your other hand and starting at your thumb, trace your finger from your palm to the tip while inhaling, and then back from the tip to the base while exhaling. This helps to regulate breathing, focus on movement, and build that mind-body connection and awareness.
This exercise trains you to focus on isolated parts of your body and sensations, starting from your head, down to your toes, in five-minute increments. This practice allows you to cultivate intentional emotional regulation and focus on the present moment. (You’ll find a video that demonstrates this meditation technique here.)
One common mindfulness breathing exercise is diaphragmatic breathing. While seated in a relaxed and comfortable position, place your hand on your lower stomach. Focus on breathing with your diaphragm by watching the hand placed on your lower abdomen rise and fall for about 10 minutes. This focus on deep breathing increases the mind-body connection while redirecting your mind from outside thoughts.
With this knowledge, you can practice these mindfulness techniques to help you navigate moments of low, negative emotions.
Though DBT mindfulness exercises can be helpful to add to your repertoire of healthy coping and self-soothing skills, a professional can guide you in applying DBT skills to your individual needs and support your development and understanding of dialectical behavior therapy and mindfulness. If you would like to learn more about DBT and how it could help you navigate strong emotions and low moments, visit THIRA Health.