Seven years ago, my husband died by suicide rather unexpectedly. I didn’t think that I would ever heal from the pain and brokenness that I felt. Without going into great detail, I will tell you that I was grasping at straws to find something to make myself feel better. I ran from one idea to the next—but the problem was that no matter where I ran, there I was again. The problem was within my own mind, thoughts, and emotions.
Mindfulness offered me freedom from the daily suffering I was experiencing. At first, mindfulness can seem like an intangible and overwhelmingly large concept. I’d like to help break it down into smaller pieces, and then offer ways for you to continue to practice on your own.
There are six core mindfulness skills according to the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy model, which are broken into “what” and “how” skills. The “what skills” (what you need to do in order to be mindful) are to observe, describe, and participate. The “how skills” (how you should be living) encourage us to be non-judgmental, one in the moment, and effective.
- • Observing is about noticing your internal and external surroundings in a curious manner. This discourages you from just sticking your head in the proverbial sand and then getting angry when something happens to you.
- • Describing encourages factual statements that everyone would agree with. This aids us in avoiding catastrophizing and limiting gossip.
- • Participating requires you to get out of your head and into the moment, targeting the anxiety that people often feel in new and/or social situations. Participating asks you to interact with your environment naturally.
- • Being non-judgmental encourages us to step back and look at situations without sticking our opinions to them. We especially need to be aware of attaching our own thoughts and assessments as the absolute truth. An example is as follows: “I let my friend down so I AM a terrible friend” contains self-judgment. It would more helpful to say, “I feel disappointment that I let my friend down, and I’m eager to repair the relationship.” And if you notice yourself having a hard time implementing this one, go easy on yourself; mindfulness tells you not to judge your judging!
- • One in the moment is a skill that reminds us that, as humans, we’re not at our best when we multitask. When multitasking, one or both activities are suffering. Imagine when someone is texting while you are trying to talk to them. It hurts the conversation and the relationship, and they are probably responding in their text message slower and with less focus than usual.
- • Being effective is a skill that encourages us to do what works and “play by the rules.” This means playing by the rules of the situation you are in, not the situation you wish you were in.
To put all of those skills together is what mindfulness is all about; however, you can practice the skills one at a time until you become more comfortable with them. Using mindfulness skills can allow more time between a trigger and a response which will dramatically reduce anxiety, depression, obsessions, and maladaptive behavior patterns such as self-harm, eating disordered behavior, substance abuse, and aggression.
If this sounds like something that would help you (and I can tell you that it helps on a daily basis for me), know that there are many ways to practice and utilize mindfulness. Almost anything can be a mindfulness practice if done with intent and focus. Taking a walk is a practice if you open your eyes, take in your surroundings through all five senses, and block any other thoughts from entering your mind. Eating is often done mindLESSly; however, eating mindfully—with no distractions and full awareness—has been shown to reduce binge eating and increase overall meal enjoyment. Art, dancing, building, meditating, breathing, showering, listening to music … all can be done with full awareness and can increase your ability to live in the moment fully, thus reducing depression and anxiety.
If you need to plan (as is essential in life), mindfulness would tell you to sit down with pen and paper and plan with your full attention. Take that time to worry, think, and make decisions regarding the future; then return to the here and now. Mindfulness would also tell you that if you need to feel sad, you should reminisce and be sad; then return to the here and now. Always remember to come back to the present moment; in time, you’ll see what a powerful place it is to be.
Alexandria Beresford, MSW, LISW-S
For more information on mindfulness, research local Dialectical Behavioral Therapists or mindfulness-based therapists in your area.