Ashleigh Wykes

August 20, 2021

The 6 Core DBT Mindfulness Skills

6.6 min read|

Mindfulness is a foundational aspect of dialectical behavioral therapy. And while the concept is simple to understand, it’s also challenging to master. 

Those who practice mindfulness train their minds and bodies to live in the moment, notice sensations occurring in each moment, and detach from stress-inducing thoughts. The benefits of practicing mindfulness include decreased stress levels, better concentration, increased cognitive function, and increased focus. This article explores how each of these skills are used within DBT and how you can use them within your own life. Let’s start with the DBT What skills.

DBT ‘WHAT’ Skills

The Observe Skill

Observe is about noticing your senses and what you’re experiencing. What you feel, see, sense, taste, touch, or hear in your environment, without labeling or reacting to it. For many people, this skill can seem tricky at first. Our minds naturally want to understand and label what’s happening rather than simply ‘being’ with the sensations. 

How to practice:

  • Pause for a moment and pay attention to any sounds going on around you. Can you hear the dishwasher running, or is there a fan nearby? Observe the sounds you hear without adding any commentary to your mind.
  • Notice your breathing.  Observe the sensation of each inhale and exhale, and notice how your stomach rises and falls as you breathe.

The Describe Skill

The Describe skill builds on Observe. When we’re observing, we’re simply paying attention. When we describe, we put into words the thoughts, feelings, and sensations we’re experiencing. 

But here’s how it can get tricky: To practice describing successfully, we need to describe our observations like scientists. Without adding our interpretations, judgments, or assumptions, try to stick to the facts and look at the hard evidence.

Try to label things for what they are. Emotions are emotions; thoughts are thoughts, and so on. Using the Describe skill prevents you from jumping to conclusions that can make you feel about yourself without checking the facts.

Example: Imagine you’re going out to lunch with a friend. While you two are eating, your friend keeps moving in his seat and looking around while you’re talking. This starts to make you feel anxious, so you quickly conclude that your friend is bored with you or something is going on. If you take your interpretation as factual, you may start to feel hurt or angry, thinking, ‘what did I do wrong?

The Describe skill used in this situation may pique your curiosity about what’s happening with your friend. So instead of creating assumptions, you may ask her what’s going on. Maybe they’re anticipating a vital phone call later, or she’s worried about running into someone. Whatever it is, you’ve likely saved yourself a lot of unnecessary stress by not buying into your perception of the facts.

The Participate Skill

This skill in DBT is about throwing yourself into whatever you’re doing and letting go of any fears or judgments that might get in the way. It’s the total opposite of sitting on the sidelines and observing. Think about this skill from a child’s perspective. Kids are great about being in the moment and immersing themselves entirely without worrying or care about the world. 

How to practice:

One of the best ways to practice these skills is during your day-to-day chores and activities, like washing the dishes or making dinner. Rather than thinking about how much you dislike doing these things or thinking about what you’re going to be doing afterward, you immerse yourself completely in the activity of washing dishes. Here are a few other ideas:

  • Taking a shower or bath
  • Going on a walk with your dog
  • Paying attention to a movie or tv show (without being on your phone)
  • Mindful eating

Remember, participating isn’t about the quality of what you’re doing but rather the quality of your experience while doing it. 

DBT ‘HOW’ Skills

Non-Judgmentally

When we’re mindful, we’re letting go of judgments. Judgments can sound like ‘i’m not doing this very well’ or ‘i’m horrible at this. While it’s entirely natural for us to judge, judging can also quickly become a part of our self-talk. 

Example: Let’s say you’re waiting for your partner to get home.  It’s getting late, and they haven’t called, even though they usually let you know if they’re running late. You may think, ‘Here I am waiting for them to get here, and they don’t respect me enough to tell me they’re running late. If they can’t tell me that much, then what else do they forget to tell me? I don’t know if this is going to work’.

How would these judgments make you feel worse and potentially hurt your relationship with your partner? While you have a right to acknowledge your feelings and desires, try to stick to the facts when rephrasing your reaction. 

Instead, you can say, ‘I’m worried they’re not back when they said they’d be. It makes me think that they got hurt or they don’t care about me. Next time this happens, I hope they call.’ Remember to be patient as you practice noticing your judgments and replacing them with nonjudgmental statements of what is.

One Mindfully

One-Mindfully is about being fully present at the moment, rather than thinking about the past or future. It’s about doing one thing simultaneously, with complete awareness, rather than splitting your attention between tasks.

When we try to juggle multiple things at one time, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to slow down enough to be mindful and get in touch with our wise mind. On the other hand, mindfulness allows us to appreciate the small things in life. The sound of your loved one’s voice on the other end of the phone, the warmth of the rays of the sun in the summertime, or the smell of fresh-baked cookies from the oven. 

How to practice:

  • Take an everyday task and shift all of your attention onto it. For example: when you’re washing your hands, pay attention to the pressure and temperature of the water running. What does the soap smell like? How does the hand towel feel afterward?
  • Start to notice the situations where you’re multitasking. Pause, and shift your attention towards one thing at a time, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

Effectively

This skill is about doing what works versus sitting and wishing things were different than what they are. When we’re not focused on doing what’s practical, we act in more emotional ways, or where we’re more focused on proving someone wrong or being right, which can ultimately get in the way of getting what we need. 

How to practice:

To practice this skill, you need to know what you want first. Then, to act effectively, you need to know the ideal outcome of a situation. Once you know what your goal is, you can choose the most effective actions to reach it.

Example: Let’s say you’re stuck in traffic, and someone cuts you off. You may feel the need to roll your window down and start yelling or learn on your horn to let that person know how you feel. In this case, if your goal is to get to your destination safely and calmly, would this be an effective response to the situation? Probably not. 

To practice being effective here would mean not escalating the situation or letting it get the best of you. But instead, use other relaxation skills like deep breathing to calm yourself down.

These skills are at the core of DBT. 

With mindfulness, we can learn to be more in touch with the present without any judgment attached to it. Using these skills will also allow you to move onto using more of the DBT skills that’s an effective skill for the situation. Daily practice and working with a DBT therapist will help you master these skills – helping you feel more at ease and in control of your emotions.

Ashleigh has worked with individuals that have Personality Disorders, Autism, and Anxiety for the past 6 years. Offering therapeutic support and outreach in several settings. She has comprehensive knowledge of DBT therapy and is experienced in working with clients who have complex mental health conditions. She has run numerous workshops and corporate training days.

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