To put it simply, mindfulness is about what we pay attention to, and getting more control over where our awareness goes. Most of the time, and particularly when we are agitated, our awareness goes all over the place and becomes identified with thoughts that create a lot of suffering. Mindfulness practices teach us to focus on something other than our thoughts. It takes us out of “problem solving” mode towards “awareness of being alive” mode, which usually allows our emotions to calm down.

Mindfulness can focus on the breathing, other body sensations, music, the colors to be seen in the room or a picture, sounds in the environment, a repetitive soothing word, or one of many other alternatives to stress producing thoughts. The DBT practice of “describing” what is experienced (as in “now I’m aware of reading these words”, “now I’m aware of sounds in the room”, etc) gives the thinking mind a job to do, and may reduce the arising of more distracting thoughts.

In the beginning, mindfulness practice usually needs the support of a therapist or group, in order to encourage the client to keep bringing attention back to the chosen focus after it wanders off. DBT clients are urged to be “nonjudgmental” about what arises in mindfulness practice, and particularly about their perceived progress in doing it. Focusing on “one thing at a time” deepens the energy of awareness, producing a relaxation response and more emotional clarity. Clients are encouraged to remain focused on what “works” in mindfulness and interpersonal situations, rather than on concepts and “shoulds”.

Research studies have shown mindfulness practice to produce significant improvements in emotional functioning. In addition, mindfulness is considered a core DBT tool because it enables clients to discover how their emotions and ways of relating to other people work. Clients learn the “choice points” within these systems in which a new behavioral choice can dramatically affect the way they feel or relate. Because emotional and relationship experiences happen so quickly, it takes sharpened mindfulness skills to perceive what is going on and what could be improved.

As mindfulness brings greater calmness to emotional situations, it becomes more possible for clients to hear what DBT calls “wise mind”, a quiet voice of guidance found at the meeting place of reason and emotions. DBT proposes that this “knowing the right thing to do” is available to all of us, when we know to look for it beneath the turbulence of emotions and judgmental thoughts.

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