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Key Takeaways:

  • Mindfulness is all about focusing on the present moment without judgment or attachment.
  • Mindfulness forms the foundation for DBT and allows us to change our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving.
  • Wise mind breathing, mindful eating, and the body scan are examples of DBT mindfulness exercises.

Most of us have dealt with overwhelming emotions at some point. Whether it’s anger, fear, or guilt, these negative feelings can impact the quality of our lives significantly. They may seem impossible to deal with in the moment, and we often succumb to the intensity of these emotions and the effect they have on our behavior. Fortunately, DBT mindfulness exercises can help us deal with intense and overwhelming emotions in a more productive and healthy way.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the process of bringing one’s consciousness or attention to the present moment without judgment or attachment. It involves recognizing when one’s mind is caught up in a specific thought and bringing it back to the present moment. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) mindfulness focuses specifically on mindfulness without judgment so that you can attend to thoughts, emotions, and behaviors without the invalidation that often accompanies emotion dysregulation.

The Role of Mindfulness in DBT

Mindfulness forms the backbone of DBT, acting as the core skill that forms the foundation for all other skill sets. This is why it is the first skill taught in DBT. Without mindfulness, it would not be possible to change our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving in ways that are more productive and healthy.

Mindfulness is essential for regulating emotions, managing personal crises, and maintaining interpersonal relationships. It is also necessary to be able to access your Wise Mind, which is another central DBT concept that allows you to synthesize the Reasonable Mind and the Emotion Mind to know what’s real or true for you.

Benefits of Practicing DBT Mindfulness Exercises

Numerous studies have been conducted on the benefits of mindfulness in recent years [*]. Regularly practicing mindfulness has been shown to:

  • Boost our immune system
  • Improve sleep quality
  • Increase emotional regulation
  • Improve brain functions such as memory and learning
  • Foster compassion and altruism
  • Enhance relationships
  • Decrease depression, anxiety, anger, and irritability
  • Increase resilience

7 DBT Mindfulness Exercises

There are several ways you can practice mindfulness. Try out these 7 DBT mindfulness activities.

1. Wise Mind Breathing Exercise

This breathing exercise allows you to access the Wise Mind, which is a quiet, deep-knowing voice of guidance found between reason and emotions (the Reasonable Mind and the Emotion Mind). Start by thinking of a question or a situation you need guidance on. Close your eyes and let your attention focus on your breath. If thoughts arise, gently let them pass by and drift away again, all while bringing the emphasis back to your breath. Time your breathing with counting. On the last inhale, ask the question you originally had and pay attention to what arises at the end of your exhale. This may be a thought, an image, or even a direct response. Let this stay in your awareness and notice how your body feels to this response. You can then choose whether or not to react to it.

2. Mindful “Urge Surfing”

You may identify some behaviors that you want to reduce, stop, or avoid acting on. To do this, use a technique called urge surfing. This is especially helpful when an urge or a craving strikes, such as smoking, spending, or even lashing out at someone. To do this exercise, first, accept that the feeling exists and that you can sense it. Next, identify where you feel it. Don’t do anything for a while except take long, slow breaths. You may feel the behavior or craving increase or decrease; keep your focus on your breathing until it subsides.

3. Mindful Breathing

Starting with the breath is essential for practicing DBT mindfulness. You can try two DBT breathing methods to start with:

Deep breathing. Inhale deeply through the nose and exhale through your mouth. Try adding words such as “in” and “out” each time you take a breath.

Breathing colors. Choose two colors before doing the breathing exercise. Imagine one color as you inhale and picture the other color when you exhale.

4. Mindful Eating

Mindful eating is all about slowing down the rate at which we consume food. Research has found that doing so can make eating a more enjoyable experience, increases body satisfaction, and leads to better psychological well-being [*]. This is also a very helpful exercise for people who struggle with eating too quickly or too much during emotional moments. To do this exercise, start by focusing on eat bite. Ask yourself what flavors you can taste and what the texture of the food is like. This will draw your attention to the moment of eating and allow you to be more mindful of the experience.

5. Mindful Walking

Mindful walking is more than just walking while being present. It is actually a form of meditation that can help bring a person back to the here and now rather than staying stuck in ruminations of the past. This is an excellent DBT mindfulness exercise for those who do not have very much time, such as people who are busy with full-time jobs. During your free time, walk outside at a natural pace with your hands in a comfortable position. Notice specific details on your walks, such as counting your steps, observing the environment around you, or focusing on your breathing. Others may find it more helpful to shift their attention to their senses, such as noticing how the air feels on their skin or the smells around them.

6. Body Scan

DBT mindfulness exercises focus on connecting an individual to their body and the present moment. The body scan is one such exercise. To do this, focus your mind from the top of your body all the way to the bottom. Start by focusing your attention on your head, then slowly move to your eyes and what they are seeing, then your ears and what they hear, your hands and joints, all the way down to your legs and feet and how they feel.

7. Practice Observing and Coming Back to Your 5 Senses

Whenever you feel overcome by intense and unpleasant emotions, it always helps to come back to your five senses. This is similar to DBT self-soothing, which is a DBT distress tolerance skill. Focusing on what you can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste can take the attention away from the negative emotion or sensation and allow you to appreciate the present moment. Engaging your physical senses one by one helps to ground you, drawing your attention away from any anxious thoughts, thereby reducing stress and anxiety. This helps create a sensation of spaciousness and calm and brings forth feelings of safety, security, and confidence.

The Bottom Line

Mindfulness can be practiced in many ways, including the seven exercises we have discussed above. Learning these skills is important in dialectical behavior therapy. They all play a crucial role in helping people get better and build a life worth living.

Mindfulness is just one of the many DBT worksheets we have available here at Mental Health Center Kids. Explore our other worksheets and handouts to learn more about DBT.