It’s not a beautiful, sunny day. In fact, it’s pouring down rain and your picnic plans have just been cancelled. You had hoped that the setting would be perfect; that you could take the time to speak to your partner about moving to a new town. Now everything is ruined and you’re sniping at your co-workers.
This situation may not be earth-shattering, but it does give you an opportunity to practice mindfulness—an awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, actions and the environment—which helps people be more active and effective participants in their lives.
Andrea Gottlieb, PhD, psychologist and program coordinator for dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) at Sheppard Pratt, says that mindfulness is a useful tool for everyday issues or for those dealing with stronger emotions, such as depression or anxiety.
She describes mindfulness as “the practice of being present, in the moment, on purpose, without judgment, and not clinging to any moment.” There are several skills used in DBT that depend on and, in turn, assist the practice of mindfulness. First is observing—noticing what is in front of you, what is in your mind and body. Next is describing—putting words to the items you are seeing or the things you are feeling. Last is participating in the moment.
Knowing these basic skills is half the battle. Now, you have to use them. You should be non-judgmental about what you are observing and your description of it. You should strive to do one thing at a time and be effective—or do what works for you.
Dr. Gottlieb shares an example of something that can happen to any of us. “I notice that I've been scrolling on my phone and suddenly I realize, what did I just do for that hour? The act of mindfulness is actually when you notice that you were distracted. So, now that I have observed this, I can choose to be intentional and do one thing at a time during this hour. For example, I decide I’m going to clean up the house and then I'm going to watch the show that I like. I don’t pass judgment on having spent that time on my phone. I observe it and, in this case, change my behavior.”
Sitting with your emotions
One thing that Dr. Gottlieb stresses about mindfulness is that it is not designed to take away any emotions or thoughts that you are experiencing. “People think about it as being calm or at peace, or like having a clear mind,” she says. “Actually, you're acknowledging the moment and allowing yourself and the things around you to be what they actually are. Then we're acting effectively—doing what the moment calls for and [being] more intuitive. So, mindfulness, when we think about it, is not absent of emotion.”
For people whose intense emotions lead them to impulsive behaviors, such as substance abuse, violence, or self-harm, mindfulness can be a way to get a grip on feelings before they become overwhelming. Learning how to observe and describe feelings or situations that perhaps start small then grow to a point where they feel unmanageable, gives a person a chance to make a more effective choice about dealing with those feelings.
Another important distinction is that mindfulness isn’t the same as meditation. “It's common misconception that mindfulness and meditation are equal,” Dr. Gottlieb explains. “Mindfulness is the bigger concept and meditation is a specific practice.” She goes on to say that DBT really encourages people not to close their eyes when they're being mindful. “You live your life with your eyes open, essentially. And you can't [always] just stop and close your eyes and try to go into a Zen place.
“Mindfulness is something that you can do anywhere, anytime—you just need yourself. You can notice the colors in a room, you can take a walk and listen to the sounds around you. You can touch something. You can sit and scan your body for sensation. You can tune in [to yourself] and say, ‘What am I thinking right now? Why am I experiencing this feeling?’ Just taking a mindful breath is a nice simple practice.”
If your daily routine has been altered by the coronavirus pandemic, you might be experiencing new stress, anxiety, or loneliness, as well as concern for loved ones and yourself. These feelings are valid, especially considering the uncertainty about how long the “new normal” will last.
“Something that I've been recommending to patients and to loved ones is creating routines,” Dr. Gottlieb says, “and mindfulness can just make that those routines be more thorough.” She describes how she and her young son have a routine of looking at the changes in a tree outside his window each morning. “Just having that morning ritual where we look out the window is mindfulness. I encourage people to find even little ways that they can build routine. And also make sure to get out of the house, even if it means standing outside your front door at least once every day.”
Psychologist, DBT Project CoordinatorSpecialties:Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Personality Disorders, Depression, LGBTQ+ Mental Health Issues, Nonsuicidal self-injury, Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors