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Building a Life Worth Living: Part 3

July 7, 2016

The next few blogs in our “Building a Life Worth Living” series will focus on helping you to gain a deeper understanding of DBT skills.  Today’s blog focuses on Core Mindfulness skills, a unique set of skills that can – and often do – play a critical role in the application of other sets of DBT skills.

shutterstock_160315670The world in which we live is one that often feels as though it is driven to distraction.  While we have opportunities to interact with the world in more ways than have ever been available, this increase in opportunity has paradoxically put the quality of these interactions at risk.  I’ll be the first to admit that I have often found myself carrying a conversation, drafting an e-mail, and sending a text, nearly simultaneously, and believing that I was somehow miraculously able to do all of these things well.

The Core Mindfulness skills of DBT are a welcome antidote to the seeming push toward increasingly chaotic multitasking.

These skills are focused on helping us to become more present and engaged with our world, with our mind and our body, and to do so in fashion that is nonjudgmental and effective.

Learning the language of DBT can be especially helpful when you have a loved one who is involved in this type of treatment, so I’d like to spend some time outlining each of the DBT skills in the Core Mindfulness module, and how these skills can apply to recovery from an eating disorder.  I would also like to highlight that DBT skills can be helpful for anyone, so even if you do not have a loved one in treatment or suffer from a mental illness yourself, these skills still apply to you!

The first three skills make up the Core Mindfulness “What” skills, or the skills that you need to use in order to enter in to a mindful state. The “Observe” skill refers to just noticing your experience, without attaching any words to it.  For example, you may notice a physical sensation in your body, or notice different thoughts you may be having.  The “Observe” skill is often challenging for people – it may be helpful to think of how a baby or an animal may perceive the world.  The “Describe” skill involves putting your observations in to words.  For example, “I feel angry,” “I am sensing a dull pain in my shoulder,” or “This couch has two shades of green.”  The “Participate” skill involves fully engaging in the present moment, without being self-conscious.  Many individuals find this skill comes easily when they are engaging in an activity that they are both talented at and enjoy greatly.

The other three Core Mindfulness skills are the “How” skills, or the skills focused on how to approach a mindful state.  The “Don’t Judge” (or “Nonjudgmental Stance”) skill involves noticing from a nonjudgmental vantage point, focusing on just the observable facts.  For example, you may notice negative self-talk (e.g. “I’m so stupid”) and work to identify a more descriptive statement (e.g. “I made an error on that report”).  The “One-Mindfully” skill involves doing only one task at a time, and curbing multitasking.  Although many people believe that multitasking increases efficiency and productivity, the majority of research that exists suggests exactly the opposite.  Finally, the “Effectiveness” skill focuses on doing what works.  Being effective often means letting go of “fair,” “unfair,” and “shoulds,” focusing instead on navigating challenging situations in a way that increases the likelihood of the best outcome possible, even if this outcome falls short of an ideal one.

So how might these skills be helpful to an individual diagnosed with an eating disorder?

dawn-nature-sunset-woman-largeMany individuals diagnosed with an eating disorder struggle to identify their emotions, yet the ability to identify one’s emotions is a critical prerequisite skill to emotion regulation.  Continually practicing the “Observe” and “Describe” skills to notice and label thoughts, physiological sensations, environmental events, urges to engage in behaviors, and so forth, can assist in the process of learning to observe and describe emotional experiences.  Feeling as though the world is a tornado of negative thoughts and self-judgments is another common experience of individuals diagnosed with an eating disorder.  The “Participate” skill, particularly when practiced before being faced with challenging situations, can help in shifting focus away from thoughts and judgments, and into the experience of the present moment.  Using the “Don’t Judge” skill when faced with negative thoughts and self-judgments can also help, either through noticing and accepting the presence of judgments, which can help in reducing their intensity, or through actively working to change judgmental thinking.  This is only a snapshot of the many ways in which the Core Mindfulness skills can assist in the process of eating disorder recovery.

As someone who has been involved in teaching many others about DBT, I have found that the best way to learn these skills isn’t through reading or talking about them, but rather through trying them out in your own life!  I’d like to close today’s blog with some ideas of activities you can try to help you better grasp each of these skills:

  • Take five minutes of your day to sit alone quietly to observe your thoughts.  Don’t hold on to your thoughts, but rather just notice their presence, allow them to pass, and permit new thoughts to enter your mind.
  • Pay attention to your thoughts and see if you notice any judgments about yourself or someone else.  Try to come up with an alternative thought about the situation that is focused on just the facts.
  • Identify a favorite activity that you have not done in a while and give yourself permission to participate in this activity.  Turn off your cell phone and other technology, eliminate any distractions, and full engage in the activity of your choosing.

Keep your eyes peeled for Part 4 in our “Building a Life Worth Living” series, which will take a closer look at the DBT Interpersonal Effectiveness skills.


Written by Alyssa Kalata, Ph.D.

Associate Clinical Director, Veritas Collaborative