DBT Skills: The Benefits of Mindfulness
So we’ve covered the elements of mindfulness in DBT, but what’s the point? Doesn’t this all just sound like spiritual woo woo? What is this whole “being present” business and why should we want to do it? There are a number of things that are quite helpful about practicing mindfulness that are incredibly practical, evidence based, and generally have nothing to do with spirituality or religion.
The first reason to practice mindfulness was utterly mind-blowing to me the first time I heard it. I hope it’s as useful to you as it was to me. Most of the time when we feel anxious, depressed, unhappy, or another negative emotion, we are thinking about something that happened in the past or that we anticipate will happen in the future. We hugely decrease the amount of suffering in our lives if at any given moment we are only living the suffering that is happening right then. More often than not, the present moment isn’t actually all that bad (not always, but often). If we have to think about every bad thing that has happened to us or every bad thing that might happen to us ALL THE TIME, life will be a whole lot harder and more painful. Being mindful and only thinking about the present will not make all the pain go away, but it will do a whole lot to decrease it.
Another side effect of mindfulness is that you’re generally more effective at whatever it is that you’re doing. Human brains are not built for multi tasking. In fact, what most people think of as multi-tasking is actually quickly switching our focus from one thing to the next. We finish tasks faster and get more done when we focus on a single thing at a time. At its heart, this is what mindfulness is about: doing what you are doing, only what you are doing, and nothing else. All the evidence points towards the fact that this is far more effective than being distracted, attempting to multi-task, or only doing something half heartedly.
Another delightful side effect of mindfulness is that you can use it to your advantage in stressful situations. If your mind continually runs in circles, focusing on something concrete right in front of you can go a long way towards shutting down the babble and reminding your brain that there is nothing to be afraid of in this exact moment. One of the benefits of this is that even if a situation is legitimately distressing, trying to stay focused on what’s effective is a very helpful way to tolerate what’s happening. Taking a moment to be aware of what’s happening and double check that you’re not judging something unnecessarily can also give you the space it takes to make a choice different from the ones you’ve made in the past: it’s good for breaking bad habits or for finding healthier coping mechanisms because it gives you the breathing room to make a choice.
One of the terms that therapists who teach DBT use for this is “wise mind” (bear with me, I know some of the terminology sounds ridiculous but the underlying concepts are helpful). Essentially, we have two different sources of information: our rational mind (which uses logic and facts and so on) and our emotion mind (which is exactly what it sounds like). Some people try to operate entirely in one or the other, and depending upon the situation one might be more helpful than the other (rational mind is probably more appropriate for work, while emotion mind might be more appropriate for riding roller coasters). Wise mind is the combination of these two things that takes both the facts and your emotions into account. Mindfulness is aiming to allow your wise mind to function, and those moments of space in distressing or upsetting situations are where wise mind should come in. Getting in touch with both emotions and facts is a huge benefit of mindfulness.
The final helpful piece of mindfulness is that it can help decrease judgments: many things that you might have jumped to conclusions about in the past you interpret without judgment (ideally). At the very least, practicing describing things in a fairly objective manner can help you to switch on a non-judgmental attitude when necessary. This can head off nasty emotions before they even start: no that person wasn’t staring at you because you’re a freak, they could have done it for any number of reasons.
Some of these reasons might seem more logical, objective or helpful to you than others, and that’s fine. But there is good evidence that mindfulness helps relieve stress, and that DBT practices are useful. I found these explanations of the underlying reasoning quite helpful in understanding how to manage my emotions.