The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook, 1st Edition

Chapter 3

Basic Mindfulness Skills

An operational working definition of mindfulness is: the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.

Jon Kabat-Zinn (2003)

Mindfulness Skills: What Are They?

Mindfulness, also known as meditation, is a valuable skill that has been taught for thousands of years in many of the world’s religions, including Christianity (Merton, 1960), Judaism (Pinson, 2004), Buddhism (Rahula, 1974), and Islam (Inayat Khan, 2000). Beginning in the 1980s, Jon Kabat-Zinn began using nonreligious mindfulness skills to help hospital patients cope with chronic pain problems (Kabat-Zinn, 1982; Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, & Burney, 1985; Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, Burney, & Sellers, 1987). More recently, similar mindfulness techniques were also integrated into other forms of psychotherapy (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002), including dialectical behavior therapy (Linehan, 1993a). Studies have shown mindfulness skills to be effective at reducing the odds of having another major depressive episode (Teasdale et al., 2000); reducing symptoms of anxiety (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1992); reducing chronic pain (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1985; Kabat-Zinn et al., 1987); decreasing binge eating (Kristeller & Hallett, 1999); increasing tolerance of distressing situations; increasing relaxation; and increasing skills to cope with difficult situations (Baer, 2003). As a result of findings like these, mindfulness is considered one of the most important core skills in dialectical behavior therapy (Linehan, 1993a).

So what exactly is mindfulness? One definition is offered above by mindfulness researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn. But for the purposes of this book, mindfulness is the ability to be aware of your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and actions—in the present moment—without judging or criticizing yourself or your experience.

Have you ever heard the expressions “be in the moment” or “be here now”? These are both different ways of saying: “be mindful of what’s happening to you.” But this isn’t always an easy task. At any moment in time, you might be thinking, feeling, sensing, and doing many different things. For example, consider what’s happening to you right now. You’re probably sitting somewhere, reading these words. But at the same time, you’re also breathing, listening to the sounds around you, noticing what the book feels like, noticing the weight of your body resting in the chair, and maybe you’re even thinking about something else. It’s also possible that you’re aware of your emotional and physical states of being happy, sad, tired, or excited. Maybe you’re even aware of bodily sensations, such as your heart beating or the rising and falling of your chest as you breathe. You might even be doing something that you’re completely unaware of, like shaking your leg, humming, or resting your head in your hand. That’s a lot to be aware of, and right now, you’re just reading a book. Imagine what’s happening to you when you’re doing other things in your life, like talking with someone or dealing with people at work. The truth is, no one is 100 percent mindful all the time. But the more mindful you learn to be, the more control you will gain over your life.

But remember, time never stands still and each second of your life is different. Because of this, it’s important that you learn to be aware “in each present moment.” For example, by the time you finish reading this sentence, the moment that you started reading it is gone and your present moment is now different. In fact, you are now different. The cells in your body are constantly dying and being replaced, so physically you’re different. Equally important, your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and actions are never exactly the same in every situation, so they’re different too. For these reasons, it’s important that you learn to be mindful of how your experience changes in each individual moment of your life.

And lastly, in order to be fully aware of your experiences in the present moment, it’s necessary that you do so without criticizing yourself, your situation, or other people. In dialectical behavior therapy this is called radical acceptance (Linehan, 1993a). As described in chapter 2, radical acceptance means tolerating something without judging it or trying to change it. This is important because if you’re judging yourself, your experience, or someone else in the present moment, then you’re not really paying attention to what’s happening in that moment. For example, many people spend a lot of time worrying about mistakes they’ve made in the past or worrying about mistakes that they might make in the future. But while they’re doing this, their focus is no longer on what’s happening to them now; their thoughts are somewhere else. As a result, they live in a painful past or future, and life feels very difficult.

So to review, mindfulness is the ability to be aware of your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and actions—in the present moment—without judging or criticizing yourself or your experience.

A “Mindless” Exercise

Obviously, mindfulness is a skill that requires practice. Most people get distracted, “zone out,” or spend most of their daily lives being unmindful or running on autopilot. As a result, they then get lost, anxious, and frustrated when a situation doesn’t happen as they expect it to. Here are some common ways in which all of us have experienced being unmindful. Check (check) the ones that you’ve done:

·               ___ While driving or traveling, you don’t remember the experience or which roads you took.

·               ___ While having a conversation, you suddenly realize that you don’t know what the other person is talking about.

·               ___ While having a conversation, you’re already thinking about what you’re going to say next before the other person has even stopped speaking.

·               ___ While reading, you suddenly realize that you’ve been thinking about something else and have no idea what you just read.

·               ___ While walking into a room, you suddenly forget what you came to get.

·               ___ After putting something down, you can’t remember where you just put it.

·               ___ While taking a shower, you’re already planning what you have to do later and then you forget if you’ve already washed your hair or some other body part.

·               ___ While having sex, you’re thinking about other things or other people.

All of these examples are fairly harmless. But for people with overwhelming emotions, being unmindful can often have a devastating effect on their lives. Consider the example of Lee. Lee thought that everyone at work hated him. One day, a new employee whom Lee found attractive approached him in the cafeteria and asked to sit down. The woman tried to be friendly and make conversation, but Lee was more engaged in the conversation in his own head than he was in the one with the woman.

“She’s probably just stuck up like the rest of them,” he thought. “Why would someone like her be interested in me anyway? Why would she want to sit with me? It’s probably just a joke someone else put her up to.” From the moment the woman sat down and tried to talk with him, Lee just became angrier and more suspicious.

The woman did her best to make small talk. She asked Lee how he liked working at the company, how long he’d been there, and she even asked him about the weather, but Lee never noticed. He was so wrapped up in his own conversation, and in paying attention to his own self-critical thoughts, that he never even recognized that the woman was trying to be friendly.

After five minutes of unsuccessfully trying, the woman finally stopped talking to Lee. Then a few minutes later, she moved to a different table, and when she did, Lee congratulated himself. “I knew it,” he thought, “I knew she wasn’t really interested in me.” But at the expense of being right, Lee’s unmindfulness and self-criticism had cost him another opportunity to meet a potential friend.

Why Are Mindfulness Skills Important?

Now that you have a better idea of what mindfulness is—and isn’t—it’s probably easy to see why this skill is so important. But for the purposes of this workbook, let’s be very clear about why you need to learn mindfulness skills. There are three reasons:

1.            Mindfulness skills will help you focus on one thing at a time in the present moment, and by doing this you can better control and soothe your overwhelming emotions.

2.            Mindfulness will help you learn to identify and separate judgmental thoughts from your experiences. These judgmental thoughts often fuel your overwhelming emotions.

3.            Mindfulness will help you develop a skill that’s very important in dialectical behavior therapy called wise mind (Linehan, 1993a).

Wise mind is the ability to make healthy decisions about your life based on both your rational thoughts and your emotions. For example, you’ve probably noticed that it’s often difficult—or impossible—to make good decisions when your emotions are intense, out of control, or contradict what’s rational. Similarly, it’s often difficult to make informed decisions when your thoughts are intense, irrational, or contradict how you feel. Wise mind is a decision-making process that balances the reasoning of your thoughts with the needs of your emotions, and it is a skill that will be discussed further in chapter 4.

About This Chapter

Throughout this chapter and the next, you’ll be presented with exercises to help you become more mindful of your moment-to-moment experiences. This chapter will introduce you to beginning mindfulness exercises to help you observe and describe your thoughts and emotions more carefully. In dialectical behavior therapy, these are called “what” skills (Linehan, 1993b), meaning they’ll help you become mindful of what you’re focusing on. Then in the next chapter, you’ll be taught more advanced mindfulness skills. In dialectical behavior therapy, these are called “how” skills (Linehan, 1993b), meaning they’ll help you learn how to be both mindful and nonjudgmental in your daily experiences.

The exercises in this chapter will teach you four “what” skills:

1.            To focus more fully on the present moment

2.            To recognize and focus on your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations

3.            To focus on your moment-to-moment stream of awareness

4.            To separate your thoughts from your emotions and physical sensations

As you read the following exercises, it’s important that you practice them in the order in which they’re presented. The exercises in this chapter are grouped according to the four “what” skills, and each exercise builds on the previous exercise.

Exercise: Focus on a Single Minute

This is the first exercise that will help you focus more fully on the present moment. It’s simple to do, but it often has an amazing effect. Its purpose is to help you become more mindful of your own sense of time. For this exercise, you’ll need a watch with a second hand or, preferably, a stopwatch.

Many people feel that time goes by very quickly. As a result, they’re always in a rush to do things and they’re always thinking about the next thing they have to do or the next thing that could go wrong. Unfortunately, this just makes them more unmindful of what they’re doing in the present moment. Other people feel that time goes by very slowly. As a result, they feel like they have more time than they actually do and they frequently find themselves running late. This simple exercise will help you become more mindful of how quickly or slowly time actually does go by.

Instructions

To begin this exercise, find a comfortable place to sit in a room where you won’t be disturbed for a few minutes and turn off any distracting sounds. Begin timing yourself with your watch or stopwatch. Then, without counting the seconds or looking at the watch, simply sit wherever you are. When you think that one minute has passed, check the watch again, or stop the timer. Note how much time really has passed.

Did you allow less than a full minute to pass? If so, how long was it—a few seconds, twenty seconds, forty seconds? If it wasn’t a full minute, consider how this affects you. Are you always in a rush to do things because you don’t think you have enough time? If so, what does the result of this exercise mean for you?

Or did you allow more than a minute to pass? If so, how long was it—one-and-a-half minutes, two minutes? If so, consider how this affects you. Are you frequently late for appointments because you think that you have more time than you really do? If so, what does the result of this exercise mean for you?

Whatever your results were, one of the purposes of learning mindfulness skills is to help you develop a more accurate awareness of all your moment-to-moment experiences, including your perception of time. If you’d like, return to this exercise in a few weeks after you’ve been practicing your mindfulness skills and see if your perception of time has changed.

Exercise: Focus on a Single Object

Focusing on a single object is the second mindfulness skill that will help you concentrate more fully on the present moment. Remember, one of the biggest traps of being unmindful is that your attention wanders from one thing to the next or from one thought to the next. And as a result, you often get lost, distracted, and frustrated. This exercise will help you focus your attention on a single object. The purpose of this exercise is to help you train your “mental muscle.” This means you will learn to maintain your focus on whatever it is you’re observing. And with practice, you’ll get better at focusing your attention, just like an athlete who exercises certain muscles to become stronger.

During this exercise, you will eventually become distracted by your thoughts, memories, or other sensations. That’s okay; this happens to everyone who does this exercise. Do your best not to criticize yourself or stop the exercise. Just notice when your mind wanders and return your focus to whatever object you’re observing.

Pick a small object to focus on. Choose something that can rest on a table, is safe to touch, and is emotionally neutral. It can be anything, such as a pen, a flower, a watch, a ring, a cup, or something similar. Don’t choose to focus on something that could hurt you or on a picture of someone you don’t like. These will stir up too many emotions for you right now.

Find a comfortable place to sit in a room where you won’t be disturbed for a few minutes, and put the object on a table in front of you. Turn off any distracting sounds. If you have a stopwatch or an alarm clock, set the timer for five minutes. Do this exercise once or twice a day for two weeks, choosing a different object to focus on each time.

You can photocopy the instructions if you want extra copies to refer to, or you can record the instructions in a slow, even voice on an audio-recording device and play them while you’re exploring the object.

Instructions

To begin, sit comfortably and take a few slow, deep breaths. Then, without touching the object, begin looking at it and exploring its different surfaces with your eyes. Take your time exploring what it looks like. Then try to imagine the different qualities that the object possesses.

·               What does the surface of the object look like?

·               Is it shiny or dull?

·               Does it look smooth or rough?

·               Does it look soft or hard?

·               Does it have multiple colors or just one color?

·               What else is unique about the way the object looks?

Take your time observing the object. Now hold the object in your hand or reach out and touch the object. Begin noticing the different ways it feels.

·               Is it smooth or is it rough?

·               Does it have ridges or is it flat?

·               Is it soft or is it hard?

·               Is it bendable or is it rigid?

·               Does the object have areas that feel different from each other?

·               What does the temperature of the object feel like?

·               If you can hold it in your hand, notice how much it weighs.

·               What else do you notice about the way it feels?

Continue exploring the object with both your sight and your sense of touch. Continue to breathe comfortably. When your attention begins to wander, return your focus to the object. Keep on exploring the object until your alarm goes off or until you have fully explored all the qualities of the object.

Exercise: Band of Light

This is the third exercise that will help you focus more fully on the present moment. It will help you become more mindful of the physical sensations in your body. Read the instructions before beginning the exercise to familiarize yourself with the process. Then you can either keep these instructions near you if you need to refer to them while you’re doing the exercise, or you can record them in a slow, even voice on an audio-recording device and play them while you’re observing the sensations in your body.

As with the other exercises in this chapter, most likely your focus will begin to wander while you’re doing this exercise. That’s okay. When you recognize that your focus is drifting, gently return your attention to the exercise and do your best not to criticize or judge yourself.

Instructions

To begin, find a comfortable place to sit in a room where you won’t be disturbed for ten minutes. Turn off any distracting sounds. Take a few slow, long breaths and then close your eyes. Using your imagination, envision a narrow band of white light circling the top of your head like a halo. As this exercise progresses, the band of light will slowly move down your body, and as it does, you will become aware of the different physical sensations you’re feeling beneath the band of light.

As you continue to breathe with your eyes closed, continue to see the band of white light encircling the top of your head and notice any physical sensations you feel on that part of your body. Perhaps you will notice your scalp tingling or itching. Whatever sensations you notice are okay.

·               Slowly the band of light begins to descend around your head, passing over the tops of your ears, your eyes, and the top of your nose. As it does, become aware of any sensations you feel there, even small sensations.

·               Notice any muscle tension you may be feeling on the top of your head.

·               As the band of light slowly descends over your nose, mouth, and chin, continue to focus on any physical sensations you might be feeling there.

·               Pay attention to the back of your head where you may be having sensations.

·               Notice any sensations you may be feeling in your mouth, on your tongue, or on your teeth.

·               Continue to watch the band of light in your imagination descend around your neck, and notice any feelings in your throat or any muscle tension on the back of your neck.

·               Now the band widens and begins to move down your torso, across the width of your shoulders.

·               Notice any sensations, muscle tension, or tingling you might be feeling in your shoulders, upper back, upper arms, and upper chest area.

·               As the band of light continues to descend down around your arms, notice any feelings you’re aware of in your upper arms, elbows, forearms, wrists, hands, and fingers. Become aware of any tingling, itching, or tension you might be holding in those places.

·               Now become aware of your chest, the middle of your back, the side of your torso, your lower back, and stomach. Again, notice any tension or sensations, no matter how small they might be.

·               As the band continues to move down your lower body, become aware of any sensations in your pelvic region, buttocks, and upper legs.

·               Be sure to pay attention to the backs of your legs and notice any feelings there.

·               Continue to watch the band of light descend around your lower legs, around your calves, shins, feet, and toes. Notice any feelings or tension you’re experiencing.

Then as the band of light disappears after completing its descent, take a few more slow, long breaths, and when you feel comfortable, slowly open your eyes and return your focus to the room.

Exercise: Inner-Outer Experience

Now that you’ve practiced being mindful of both an object outside of yourself and your internal physical sensations, the next step is to combine the two experiences. This is the first exercise that will teach you how to recognize and focus on your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. This will be done by teaching you to shift your attention back and forth in a mindful, focused way between what you are experiencing internally, such as your physical sensations and thoughts, and what you are experiencing externally, such as what you notice using your eyes, ears, nose, and sense of touch.

Read the instructions before beginning the exercise to familiarize yourself with the experience. Then you can either keep these instructions near you if you need to refer to them while you’re doing the exercise, or you can record them in a slow, even voice on an audio-recording device so that you can listen to them while you practice shifting your focus between your internal and external awareness.

Instructions

To begin, find a comfortable place to sit in a room where you won’t be disturbed for ten minutes. Turn off any distracting sounds. Take a few slow, long breaths and relax.

Now, keeping your eyes open, focus your attention on an object in the room. Notice what the object looks like. Notice its shape and color. Imagine what that object would feel like if you could hold it. Imagine what the object must weigh. Describe the object silently to yourself, being as descriptive as possible. Take a minute to do this. Keep breathing. If your focus begins to drift, simply return your attention to the exercise without criticizing yourself. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

When you have finished describing the object, return your focus to your body. Notice any physical sensations that you might be experiencing. Scan your body from your head to your feet. Notice any muscle tension you might be holding, any tingling you might be experiencing, or any other sensations of which you are aware. Take a minute to do this, and keep breathing slow, deep breaths. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

Now redirect your attention to your sense of hearing. Notice any sounds that you can hear. Notice sounds you hear coming from outside your room and note to yourself what they are. Now become aware of any sounds you hear coming from inside the room and note to yourself what they are. Try to notice even small sounds, such as the ticking of a clock, the sound of the wind, or the beating of your heart. If you become distracted by any thoughts, return your focus to your sense of hearing. Take a minute to do this, and keep breathing. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

When you have finished listening to the sounds that you can notice, return your focus to your body. Again, notice any physical sensations. Become aware of the weight of your body resting in the chair. Notice the weight of your feet resting on the floor. Notice the weight of your head resting on top of your neck. Notice in general how your body feels. If you become distracted by your thoughts, just notice what they are and refocus your attention as best you can on your physical sensations. Take a minute to do this, and keep breathing slow, deep breaths. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

Once again, redirect your attention. This time, put your focus on your sense of smell. Notice any smells that are in the room, pleasant or otherwise. If you don’t notice any smells, just become aware of the flow of air moving into your nostrils as you breathe in through your nose. Try your best to maintain your focus on your sense of smell. If you become distracted by any thoughts, return your focus to your nose. Take a minute to do this, and keep breathing.[Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

When you have finished using your sense of smell, once again return your focus to your physical sensations. Notice any sensations that you might be feeling. Once again, scan your body from your head to your feet and become aware of any muscle tension, tingling, or other physical feelings. If your thoughts distract you, do your best to return your focus to your physical sensations. Take a minute to do this, and keep breathing slow, deep breaths. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

Now, finally, redirect your attention to your sense of touch. Reach out with one of your hands to touch an object that is within reach. Or, if there is no object within reach, touch the chair you’re sitting on or touch your leg. Notice what the object feels like. Notice if it’s smooth or rough. Notice if it’s pliable or rigid. Notice if it’s soft or solid. Notice what the sensations feel like on the skin of your fingertips. If your thoughts begin to distract you, simply return your focus to the object that you’re touching. Take a minute to do this, and keep breathing slow, deep breaths. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

When you’ve finished, take three to five slow, long breaths and return your focus to the room.

Exercise: Record Three Minutes of Thoughts

This is the second exercise that will help you recognize and focus on your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. In this exercise, you will identify the number of thoughts you have in a three-minute period. This will allow you to become more mindful of just how quickly your mind really works. This exercise will also help you prepare for the next exercise, Thought Defusion.

The instructions for this exercise are simple: set a timer for three minutes and begin writing down every thought you have on a piece of paper. But don’t try to record the thought word for word. Just write down a word or two that represents the thought. For example, if you were thinking about a project you have to complete at work by next week, simply write “project” or “work project.” Then record your next thought.

See how many of your thoughts you can catch in three minutes, no matter how small the thoughts are. Even if you start thinking about this exercise, write “exercise.” Or if you start thinking about the paper you’re writing on, write “paper.” No one else ever has to see this record, so be honest with yourself.

When you’ve finished, count the number of thoughts you had in three minutes and multiply that number by twenty to get an idea of how many thoughts you might have in an hour.

Exercise: Thought Defusion

This is the third exercise that will help you recognize and focus on your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Thought defusion is a technique borrowed from acceptance and commitment therapy (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999), which has proven to be a very successful treatment for emotional distress.

When distressing thoughts keep repeating, it’s often easy to get “hooked” on them, like a fish biting on a bait hook (Chodron, 2003). In contrast, thought defusion will help you mindfully observe your thoughts without getting stuck on them. With practice, this skill will give you more freedom to choose which thoughts you want to focus on and which thoughts you want to let go of instead of getting stuck on all of them.

Thought defusion requires the use of your imagination. The object of this skill is to visualize your thoughts, either as pictures or words, harmlessly floating away from you without obsessing about them or analyzing them. Whichever way you choose to do this is okay. Here are some suggestions that other people have found helpful:

·               Imagine sitting in a field watching your thoughts float away on clouds.

·               Picture yourself sitting near a stream watching your thoughts float past on leaves.

·               See your thoughts written in the sand and then watch the waves wash them away.

·               Envision yourself driving a car and see your thoughts pass by on billboards.

·               See your thoughts leave your head and watch them sizzle in the flame of a candle.

·               Imagine sitting beside a tree and watch your thoughts float down on leaves.

·               Picture yourself standing in a room with two doors; then watch your thoughts enter through one door and leave through the other.

If one of these ideas works for you, that’s great. If not, feel free to create your own. Just be sure that your idea captures the purpose of this exercise, which is to visually watch your thoughts come and go without holding on to them and without analyzing them. Remember to use the concept of radical acceptance while doing this exercise. Let your thoughts be whatever they are and don’t get distracted fighting them or criticizing yourself for having them. Just let the thoughts come and go.

Read the instructions before beginning the exercise to familiarize yourself with the experience. If you feel more comfortable listening to the instructions, use an audio-recording device to record the instructions in a slow, even voice so you can listen to them while practicing this technique. When you are first using thought defusion, set a kitchen timer or an alarm clock for three to five minutes and practice letting go of your thoughts until the alarm goes off. Then as you get more accustomed to using this technique, you can set the alarm for longer periods of time, like eight or ten minutes. But don’t expect to be able to sit still that long when you first start. In the beginning, three to five minutes is a long time to use thought defusion.

Instructions

To begin, find a comfortable place to sit in a room where you won’t be disturbed for as long as you’ve set your timer. Turn off any distracting sounds. Take a few slow, long breaths, relax, and close your eyes.

Now, in your imagination, picture yourself in the scenario that you chose, watching your thoughts come and go, whether it’s by the beach, near a stream, in a field, in a room, or wherever. Do your best to imagine yourself in that scene. After you do, start to become aware of the thoughts that you’re having. Start to observe the thoughts that are coming up, whatever they are. Don’t try to stop your thoughts, and do your best not to criticize yourself for any of the thoughts. Just watch the thoughts arise, and then, using whatever technique you’ve chosen, watch the thoughts disappear. Whatever the thought is, big or small, important or unimportant, watch the thought arise in your mind and then let it float away or disappear by whichever means you’ve chosen.

Just continue to watch the thoughts arise and disappear. Use pictures to represent the thoughts or words, whatever works best for you. Do your best to watch the thoughts arise and disappear without getting hooked into them and without criticizing yourself.

If more than one thought comes up at the same time, see them both arise and disappear. If the thoughts come very quickly, do your best to watch them all disappear without getting hooked on any of them. Continue to breathe and watch the thoughts come and go until your timer goes off.

When you’ve finished, take a few more slow, long breaths and then slowly open your eyes and return your focus to the room.

Exercise: Describe Your Emotion

This is the fourth exercise that will help you recognize and focus on your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. So far, the exercises in this chapter have helped you learn to be more mindful of your physical sensations and thoughts. This next exercise will help you become more mindful of your emotions. As with some of the other exercises, the instructions for this exercise might sound simple, but the results can be powerful. This exercise will ask you to choose an emotion and then to describe that emotion by drawing it and exploring it.

So, to begin, pick an emotion. It can be either a pleasant or an unpleasant emotion. Ideally, you should choose an emotion that you’re feeling right now, unless that emotion is overwhelmingly sad or self-destructive. If it is, you should wait until you feel more in control of your emotions before beginning this exercise. On the other hand, if you can’t identify what you’re feeling now, choose an emotion that you were feeling recently, something that you can easily remember. But, whichever you choose, try to be specific about what the emotion is. For example, if you got into a fight with your spouse or partner recently because he or she did something to you, that’s the situation, not the emotion. Maybe this situation made you feel angry, hurt, sad, stupid, or something else. Be specific about how you feel. Here’s another example. Maybe someone recently gave you a gift. That’s the situation. Your emotion would depend on how you felt about the gift. If it was something you’ve always wanted, you might feel elated. If the gift came from someone you don’t know very well, you might feel anxious about its purpose. Be specific about how you feel.

To help you choose an emotion, use this list of some commonly felt emotions.

List of Commonly Felt Emotions

List of Commonly Felt Emotions

When you finish identifying the emotion you want to explore, write it down at the top of the Describe Your Emotion form (on the next page) or use a blank piece of paper.

Then, using your imagination, draw a picture of what your emotion might look like. This might sound hard to do, but just do the best you can. For example, if you are feeling happy, maybe a picture of the sun expresses how you feel or maybe a picture of an ice-cream cone would do better. The picture doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else but you. Just give it a try.

Next, try to think of a sound that would further describe the emotion. For example, if you are feeling sad, maybe the sound of a groan would describe how you feel, such as “ugh.” Or maybe a certain song expresses your emotion better. Describe the sound as best you can, and write it near your drawing.

Then describe an action that “fits” your emotion. For example, if you are feeling bored, maybe the action would be to take a nap. Or if you are feeling shy, maybe the action would be to run away and hide. Do your best to describe the action, and write it near your drawing.

The next step of this exercise is to describe the intensity of the emotion on which you’re focusing. This will require some thought. Do your best to describe the strength of this emotion. Feel free to be creative and use metaphors if you need to. For example, if you are feeling very nervous, you might write that the feeling is so strong that your “heart feels like a drum at a rock concert.” Or if you are only feeling a little angry, you might write that the intensity is like a “mosquito bite.”

After describing the intensity of the emotion, briefly describe the overall quality of what the emotion feels like. Again, feel free to be as creative as you need to be in your description. If you are nervous, maybe it makes you feel like your “knees are made of jelly.” Or if you are getting angry, it might make you feel like “water that’s about to boil.” Be as accurate as you can in your description and be as creative as you need to be in order to convey your feelings.

Finally, add any thoughts that arise due to your emotion. But be clear that what you describe is a thought and not another emotion. For example, don’t choose any of the words in the list above to describe your thoughts. Those are emotions, not thoughts. Your thoughts should be able to finish the following sentences: “My emotion makes me think that…” or “My emotion makes me think about…” It’s important that you begin separating your thoughts and your emotions because this will give you better control over both of them in the future. Here are some examples of thoughts that can arise from emotions. If you are feeling confident, a related thought might be that you think you can ask your boss for a raise, or it makes you remember other times in your life when you felt confident and were successful. Or if you are feeling fragile, a related thought could be that you think you can’t handle any more stress in your life, or it makes you think about how you’re going to struggle with future problems if you don’t get stronger.

Describe Your Emotion

Exercise: Focus Shifting

This next exercise will teach you the third “what” skill, which is learning to identify what you are focusing on in your moment-to-moment stream of awareness. Now that you’ve practiced being mindful of both your emotions and your sense experiences (seeing, hearing, touching), it’s time to put the two experiences together. This exercise is similar to the Inner-Outer Experience exercise because it will also help you shift your attention back and forth in a mindful, focused way. However, this Focus Shifting exercise will address the shift between your emotions and your senses and help you differentiate between the two.

At some point in our lives, we all get caught in our emotions. For example, when someone says something insulting to you, maybe you feel upset all day, think poorly of yourself, get angry at someone else, or look at the world in a much gloomier way. This “emotional trap” is a common experience for everyone. But for someone struggling with overwhelming emotions, these experiences happen more frequently and intensely. Mindfulness skills will help you separate your present-moment experience from what’s happening inside you emotionally, thereby giving you a choice as to which one you’ll focus on.

Before starting this exercise, you’ll also need to identify how you are currently feeling. If you need to refer to the list of emotions in the previous exercise, go ahead. Do your best to be as accurate as possible about how you feel. Even if you think that you’re not feeling anything, you probably are. A person is never completely without emotion. Maybe you’re just feeling bored or content. Do your best to identify what it is.

Read the instructions before beginning this exercise to familiarize yourself with the experience. Then you can either keep these instructions near you if you need to refer to them while you’re doing the exercise, or you can record them in a slow, even voice on an audio-recording device so that you can listen to them while you practice shifting your focus between your emotions and your senses.

If you need to, set a timer for five to ten minutes for this exercise.

Instructions

To begin, find a comfortable place to sit in a room where you won’t be disturbed for ten minutes. Turn off any distracting sounds. Take a few slow, long breaths, and relax.

Now close your eyes and focus your attention on how you are feeling. Name the emotion silently to yourself. Use your imagination to envision what your emotion might look like if it had a shape. The image doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. Just allow your imagination to give your emotion a form or shape. Take a minute to do this, and keep breathing slow breaths. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

Now open your eyes and put your focus on an object in the room where you’re sitting. Notice what the object looks like. Notice its shape and color. Imagine what that object might feel like if you could hold it. Imagine what the object must weigh. Describe the object silently to yourself, being as descriptive as possible. Take a minute to do this. Keep breathing. If your focus begins to drift, simply return your attention to the exercise without criticizing yourself. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

When you’ve finished describing the object, close your eyes and return your focus to your emotion. Think of a sound that might be related to your emotion. The sound can be anything that you think describes your emotion. It can be a noise, a song, or whatever. When you’re done describing the sound to yourself, think of an action related to your emotion. Again, it can be anything that further enhances your understanding of your emotion. Take a minute to do this, and keep breathing slow, deep breaths. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

Now, keeping your eyes closed, redirect your attention to your sense of hearing. Notice any sounds that you can hear. Notice sounds you hear coming from outside your room and note to yourself what they are. Now become aware of any sounds you hear coming from inside the room and note to yourself what they are. Try to notice even small sounds, such as the ticking of a clock, the sound of the wind, or the beating of your heart. If you become distracted by any thoughts, return your focus to your sense of hearing. Take a minute to do this, and keep breathing. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

When you have finished listening to the sounds that you can notice, return your focus to your emotion. Keeping your eyes closed, silently describe the intensity and quality of your emotion to yourself. Again, feel free to be creative and use comparisons if you need to. Take a minute to do this, and keep breathing slow, deep breaths. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

Once again, redirect your attention. This time, put your focus on your sense of smell. Notice any smells that are in the room, pleasant or otherwise. If you don’t notice any smells, just become aware of the flow of air moving into your nostrils as you breathe in through your nose. Try your best to maintain your focus on your sense of smell. If you become distracted by any thoughts, return your focus to your nose. Take a minute to do this, and keep breathing.[Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

When you have finished using your sense of smell, once again return your focus to your emotions. Notice any thoughts you might be having that are related to your emotion. Be as specific about the thought as you can, and make sure your thought isn’t really another emotion. Take a minute to do this, and keep breathing slow, deep breaths. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

Now, finally, redirect your attention to your sense of touch. Reach out with one of your hands to touch an object that is within reach. Or if there is no object within reach, touch the chair you’re sitting in or touch your leg. Notice what the object feels like. Notice if it’s smooth or rough. Notice if it’s pliable or rigid. Notice if it’s soft or solid. Notice what the sensations feel like on the skin of your fingertips. If your thoughts begin to distract you, simply return your focus to the object that you’re touching. Take a minute to do this, and keep breathing slow, deep breaths. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

When you’ve finished, take three to five slow, long breaths and return your focus to the room.

Exercise: Mindful Breathing

This Mindful Breathing exercise will help you learn the fourth “what” skill, which is learning to separate your thoughts from your emotions and physical sensations. (You already learned the basics of mindful breathing in chapter 2, Advanced Distress Tolerance Skills, but this exercise will give you an additional understanding of the skill.) Very often, when you’re distracted by your thoughts and other stimuli, one of the easiest and most effective things you can do is to focus your attention on the rising and falling of your breath. This type of breathing also causes you to take fuller, deeper breaths, which can help you relax.

In order to breathe mindfully, you need to focus on three parts of the experience. First, you must count your breaths. This will help you focus your attention, and it will also help you calm your mind when you’re distracted by thoughts. Second, you need to focus on the physical experience of breathing. This is accomplished by observing the rising and falling of your chest and stomach as you inhale and exhale. And third, you need to be aware of any distracting thoughts that arise while you’re breathing. Then you need to let the thoughts go without getting stuck on them, as in the previous Thought Defusion exercise. Letting go of the distracting thoughts will allow you to refocus your attention on your breathing and help you further calm yourself.

Read the instructions before beginning the exercise to familiarize yourself with the experience. If you feel more comfortable listening to the instructions, use an audio-recording device to record the directions in a slow, even voice so that you can listen to them while practicing this technique. When you first start this technique, set a timer or an alarm clock for three to five minutes, and practice breathing until the alarm goes off. Then as you get more accustomed to using this technique to help you relax, you can set the alarm for longer periods of time, like ten or fifteen minutes. But don’t expect to be able to sit still that long when you first start. In the beginning, three to five minutes is a long time to focus and breathe. Later, when you become more accustomed to using this style of breathing, you can also begin using it while you’re doing other daily activities, like walking, doing the dishes, watching television, or having a conversation.

When using mindful breathing, many people feel as if they become “one” with their breathing, meaning that they feel a deep connection to the experience. If that happens for you, that’s great. If not, that’s okay, too. Just keep practicing. Also, some people feel light-headed when they first begin practicing this technique. This may be caused by breathing too fast, too deeply, or too slowly. Don’t be alarmed. If you begin to feel light-headed, stop if you need to, or return your breathing to a normal rate and begin counting your breaths.

This is such a simple and powerful skill that, ideally, you should practice it every day.

Instructions

To begin, find a comfortable place to sit in a room where you won’t be disturbed for as long as you’ve set your timer. Turn off any distracting sounds. If you feel comfortable closing your eyes, do so to help you relax.

To begin, take a few slow, long breaths, and relax. Place one hand on your stomach. Now slowly breathe in through your nose and then slowly exhale through your mouth. Feel your stomach rise and fall as you breathe. Imagine your belly filling up with air like a balloon as you breathe in, and then feel it deflate as you breathe out. Feel the breath moving in across your nostrils, and then feel your breath blowing out across your lips. As you breathe, notice the sensations in your body. Feel your lungs fill up with air. Notice the weight of your body resting on whatever you’re sitting on. With each breath, notice how your body feels more and more relaxed.

Now, as you continue to breathe, begin counting your breaths each time you exhale. You can count either silently to yourself or aloud. Count each exhalation until you reach “4” and then begin counting at “1” again. To begin, breathe in slowly through your nose, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. Count “1.” Again, breathe in slowly through your nose and slowly out through your mouth. Count “2.” Repeat, breathing in slowly through your nose, and then slowly exhale. Count “3.” Last time—breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Count “4.” Now begin counting at “1” again.

This time, though, as you continue to count, occasionally shift your focus to how you’re breathing. Notice the rising and falling of your chest and stomach as you inhale and exhale. Again, feel the breath moving in through your nose and slowly out through your mouth. If you want to, place one hand on your stomach and feel your breath rise and fall. Continue counting as you take slow, long breaths. Feel your stomach expand like a balloon as you breathe in, and then feel it deflate as you breathe out. Continue to shift your focus back and forth between counting and the physical experience of breathing.

Now, lastly, begin to notice any thoughts or other distractions that remove your focus from your breathing. These distractions might be memories, sounds, physical sensations, or emotions. When your mind begins to wander and you catch yourself thinking of something else, return your focus to counting your breath. Or return your focus to the physical sensation of breathing. Try not to criticize yourself for getting distracted. Just keep taking slow, long breaths into your belly, in and out. Imagine filling up your belly with air like a balloon. Feel it rising with each inhalation and falling with each exhalation. Keep counting each breath, and with each exhalation, feel your body relaxing, more and more deeply.

Keep breathing until your alarm goes off. Continue counting your breaths, noticing the physical sensation of your breathing and letting go of any distracting thoughts or other stimuli. Then, when your alarm goes off, slowly open your eyes and return your focus to the room.

Exercise: Mindful Awareness of Emotions

This is the second exercise that will help you learn to separate your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Mindful awareness of your emotions starts with focusing on your breathing—just noticing the air moving in through your nose and out through your mouth, filling and emptying your lungs. Then, after four or five slow, long breaths, shift your attention to how you feel emotionally in the present moment. Start by simply noticing if you feel good or bad. Is your basic internal sense that you are happy or not happy?

Then see if you can observe your emotion more closely. What word best describes the feeling? Consult the list of emotions from the Describe Your Emotion exercise if you’re having trouble finding the most accurate description. Keep watching the feeling, and while you do, continue describing to yourself what you observe. Notice the nuances of the feeling or perhaps the threads of other emotions woven into it. For example, sometimes sadness has veins of anxiety or even anger. Sometimes shame is intertwined with loss or resentment. Also notice the strength of your emotion and check to see how it changes while you watch it.

Emotions invariably come as a wave. They escalate, then they reach a crest, and finally they diminish. You can observe this, describing to yourself each point in the wave as the feeling grows and passes.

If you have difficulty finding an emotion that you’re feeling in the present moment, you can still do this exercise by locating a feeling that you had in the recent past. Think back to a situation during the last several weeks when you had a strong emotion. Visualize the event—where you were, what was happening, what you said, how you felt. Keep recalling details of the scene until the emotion you had then is being felt again by you right now.

However you choose to observe an emotion, once the emotion is clearly recognized, stay with it. Keep describing to yourself the changes in quality, intensity, or type of emotion you are feeling.

Ideally, you should observe the feeling until it has significantly changed—in quality or strength—and you have some sense of the wave effect of your emotion. While watching your feeling, you’ll also notice thoughts, sensations, and other distractions that try to pull your attention away. This is normal. Just do your best to bring your focus back to your emotion whenever your attention wanders. Just stay with it until you’ve watched long enough to observe your emotion grow, change, and diminish.

As you learn to mindfully observe a feeling, two important realizations can emerge. One is the awareness that all feelings have a natural life span. If you keep watching your emotions, they will peak and gradually subside. The second awareness is that the mere act of describing your feelings can give you a degree of control over them. Describing your emotions often has the effect of building a container around them, which keeps them from overwhelming you.

Read the instructions before beginning the exercise to familiarize yourself with the experience. If you feel more comfortable listening to the instructions, use an audio-recording device to record the directions in a slow, even voice so that you can listen to them while practicing this technique. If you record the directions, pause between each paragraph so you can leave time to fully experience the process.

Instructions

Take a long, slow breath and notice the feeling of the air moving in through your nose, going down the back of your throat, and into your lungs. Take another breath and watch what happens in your body as you inhale and let go. Keep breathing and watching. Keep noticing the sensations in your body as you breathe. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

Now turn your attention to what you feel emotionally. Look inside and find the emotion you are experiencing right now. Or find an emotion that you felt recently. Notice whether the emotion is a good or a bad feeling. Notice whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. Just keep your attention on the feeling until you have a sense of it. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

Now look for words to describe the emotion. For example, is it elation, contentment, or excitement? Or is it sadness, anxiety, shame, or loss? Whatever it is, keep watching and describing the emotion in your mind. Notice any change in the feeling and describe what’s different. If any distractions or thoughts come to mind, do your best to let them go without getting stuck on them. Notice if your feeling is intensifying or diminishing, and describe what that’s like. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

Keep observing your emotion and letting go of distractions. Keep looking for words to describe the slightest change in the quality or intensity of your feeling. If other emotions begin to weave in, continue to describe them. If your emotion changes into an altogether new emotion, just keep observing it and finding the words to describe it. [Pause here for one minute if you are recording the instructions.]

Thoughts, physical sensations, and other distractions will try to grab your attention. Notice them, let them go, and return your focus to your emotion. Stay with it. Continue observing it. Keep going until you’ve observed your emotion change or diminish.

Conclusion

You’ve now learned some basic mindfulness skills. Hopefully, you have a better understanding of how your mind works and why these skills are important to learn. You should continue using them on a daily basis. In the next chapter, you will build on these skills and learn more advanced mindfulness skills.