Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, and in the midst of the hype it can sometimes be challenging to understand just what it is and how it can be used to make a practical difference. When caring for children and youth who come from backgrounds of complex trauma and exhibit behaviors that are perplexing, troubling, shocking, and hurtful, carers can be pushed to their limits hundreds of times a day. Mindfulness is a skill that can be practiced as a way to stay tuned in, present, and flexible when confronted with our most challenging experiences.
In Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT), mindfulness is a skill that can be practiced in order to access the state of our “wise mind” rather than the extremes of our “reasonable mind” or our “emotion mind.”
- The Wise mind is that place of clarity and intuition; knowing that something is the right thing to do and the state that reflects the overlap of both ‘reasonable’ and ‘emotion’ mind. Being in our wise mind results in us being able to respond to the moment in ways that are often much more effective. Wise mind takes into consideration both____ and____ rather than just focusing on one aspect of a situation. For example, I’m so upset at Olivia right now, and I know that she is simply acting out of her deep sense of shame; she needs me to be predictable, validating, calm and accepting of her even if her behaviors are repulsive. In contrast, when we are stressed we tend to operate from one extreme or another.
- The Reasonable mind is the part of our brain that, when we are calm, is logical, calculated, intellectual, and able to plan and organize. However, functioning only from our reasonable mind quickly gets us stuck in the “shoulds” of life, or gets our thinking fixed in black and white rather than being creative and flexible.
- On the other hand, the Emotional mind is necessary for us to live healthy lives and experience empathy and compassion for others. It is the part of our brain where deep urges and impulses are generated based on how we interpret the world around us. Acting only from this emotional space is often characterized by intense feelings, chaotic thinking, unnecessary suffering and/or regretful actions.
Another way to consider the concept of wise mind is through Dr. Dan Siegel’s Hand Model of the Brain, which he applies both to parenting as well as teaching kids how to regulate. CCI coaches often use this video as a way to illustrate how the emotional areas of our brain can take over our rational thinking when we become stressed/angry/anxious or experience any other strong emotion: https://www.complextrauma.ca/the-hand-model-of-the-brain/. The emotion mind in this illustration is the limbic system, the reasonable mind is the pre-frontal cortex, and the working together of the two result in wise mind or that balanced state where the cortex is regulating the sub-cortical limbic and brain stem areas.
Mindfulness is the key to staying in or coming back to the place where we can be tuned into our wise mind and act in a flexible manner, considering both the emotion we feel and the more logical thoughts we have. In DBT Marsha Linehan helpfully lays out three specific ways to actually DO mindfulness which can be practiced one at a time.
This skill invites us to notice what is in each moment, as it is unfolding, without clinging to it or pushing it away. The ability to step back and observe both our internal and external experience in a non-attached way, while still staying present, results in mental flexibility which is the ability to choose our responses so that we don’t get caught up or automatically act the way we feel. In this state we recognize that a thought is just a thought, a feeling is just a feeling, a sensation is just a sensation. They will ebb and flow like waves if we allow them to just be instead of trying to control them or push them away. One way the DBT program suggests we engage in this skill is by imagining we have a “Teflon mind.” Try allowing experiences, thoughts, feelings and sensations to come into your mind and slide back out without sticking to them. Other analogies that can be helpful is to either think of oneself at the edge of a riverbank, observing the water rush by instead of being caught up in the flow, or imagining that your mind is the sky and everything that moves through it is just a cloud drifting by.
Practice: Watch what is happening through one of your senses without labeling or judging it. For example, notice the way your fingers feel on whatever they are touching, listen to any sounds that are present, really bring your attention to some object around you like you are seeing it for the first time, or observe what it’s like to slowly savor a bite of chocolate.
This skill is very simply a reaction to what we observe, putting words to our experience. The DBT skills manual calls it “wordful watching.” The essence of describing is sticking only to the facts without interpretations or evaluations like good/bad, right/wrong etc. This allows us to take a slightly detached viewpoint and recognize that our thoughts are just thoughts and feelings are just feelings, they are not necessarily true. When we can put words to the events and reactions happening inside and around us, our ability to communicate and practice self-control improves significantly. We can learn not to take emotions and thoughts so literally, but rather experience them as a reaction to our environment. For example, describing an experience as “when Aiden responds to me that way I notice the thought come into my mind that this intervention is never going to work” can help one recognize that just because they had the thought does not mean that in fact the intervention is never going to work.
Practice: Imagine that your mind is a conveyor belt, and that thoughts and emotions (made up of body sensations and urges to act) are continually flowing down the belt. Sort whatever comes down the conveyer belt into containers labeled as thoughts, sensations, and urges.
This skill is the act of fully throwing ourselves into an activity, allowing ourselves to let go of self-consciousness, judgement, fear, or rumination, and do exactly what is needed in each situation. The challenge with this practice is to become one with the moment without separating ourselves from our experience and interactions. This allows us to be free of worrying how we look or what others will think, releases us from thinking about tomorrow or yesterday, enables us to truly live our life instead of just going through the motions, and even seems to have the influence of slowing down time. When our minds wander as minds do, we can gently bring them back to our experience as it is unfolding.
Practice: Next time you interact with your child, fully engage with them in the moment. Notice and focus on what is happening in the moment: their tone of voice, what is being said, what they are doing with their body, how you are responding internally and externally. Be here now.
These three skills are a simple way to begin practicing mindfulness. I suggest starting to use them during mundane, non-emotionally charged moments such as while driving, showering, doing dishes, reading, or having a neutral conversation. This way when the challenging moments come, the muscle of mindfulness will have already grown some, making it more and more automatic to access the state of wise mind.
The DBT Skills Manual by Marsha Linehan