Changing Behavior Step 1: Mindfulness

A woman touching her face
Photo by Martina
 
I did 16 months of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) after I'd been hospitalized for depression.  I learned great strategies for dealing with my emotions, creating deeper relationships, and making it a priority to do things that bring my joy.  My life still isn't perfect of course, but I feel so much more empowered knowing that I have strategies to help me get through challenging situations.
 
My recent increase in "cutting" or picking at my skin shows me that I need to review my skills and actively practice them.
 
Official disclaimer: Please be aware that my explanations of DBT skills are based on my limited experience and cannot act as a substitute for DBT group and individual therapy with a trained DBT therapist.
 
There are four modules in DBT, and the first one is Mindfulness. It makes sense because you can't practice the other skills until you've practiced being fully aware and engaged in the present moment. Today I am focusing on practicing the "What Skills" of Mindfulness. These skills offer ways of "taking stock" of what thoughts and feelings I'm having right now. I can't make informed choices about how to respond to a situation if I'm reacting impulsively.
 
Observe
This skill involves actively noticing what you're experiencing. Pay attention especially to your five senses. What does your body feel like, as it touches the chair you're sitting on, as your feet touch the ground? How is your breathing, fast, slow, shallow? Is there tension in your body?
 
Notice if you have thoughts, but don't use words yet. Let go of actively thinking, and become fully aware of whatever is happening in the present moment.
 
Describe
Describe what you experience in objective terms. When you notice a feeling, think to yourself, "I feel sad/angry/scared." When you notice a feeling, think it and picture the words, "I'm so tired and frustrated," "I have too much to do," etc. Describe the thoughts, sensations, and feelings without reacting to them.
 
Participate
Act in the present moment, without worrying about the future or regretting anything in the past. Concentrate on what action you're taking right now. If possible, try to move a little more slowly and carefully than you normally would.
 
Example: As I type this, I'm noticing the feel of the keys on my keyboard, the hardness of the chair I'm sitting on, the music playing in the coffee shop, one of my feet touching the floor, the other foot touching the base of a table, and I hear the murmur of other people's voices.
 
I notice my breath is shallow and quick, and my pulse is faster than usual. I feel a tightness in my chest that often tells me that I'm feeling afraid. I'm thinking, "Ugh, no one is going to want to read this. It's boring and super obvious."
 
I'm closing my eyes, and slowing my breath, counting to three for a full in-breath, then counting to three for a full out-breath. I'm thinking, "Well, my blog posts don't all have to be amazing. I just have to write them. As I write more and more, I'll hopefully get better and better. It's all in the journey, not the destination."
 
While I did this mindfulness exercise, I did not feel any urge to pick at my skin. Noticing this makes me smile.
 
How do you get yourself to be completely in the moment?

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