The first “What” skill is Observing, that is, attending to events, emotions, and other behavior responses without necessarily trying to end them because they’re painful or prolong them when they’re pleasant. What we learn is to allow ourselves to experience with awareness, in the moment, whatever is happening, rather than leaving a situation or trying to end an emotion. Generally, the ability to attend to events requires the ability to step back from the event itself.
My first observing exercise was with a Mountain Dew bottle in my DBT class. Now, two years have gone by for me since that first observation exercise. Since then the way I have learned to implement observation is to do it when I’m doing something I don’t like to do. Nevertheless, I am able to tolerate it.
For instance, I hate doing dishes. Most of the time my kids do them. However, at times I force myself to do them and just observe myself doing them. I carefully wash and intensely observe without letting the fact that I hate doing the deed get to me.
For me I immensely love to watch my children play outside. I usually smile and laugh right along with them. However, I sometimes try to just observe them playing without letting my emotions get in the way. When it comes to my kids, this can be very hard.
Another way I try to observe is to listen to my favorite music… or music I tend to dislike strongly. I try to detach myself of all emotion that I may have to the lyrics or the musical style. I try to just observe the music itself or the voice of the singer. I try to pick out a certain instrument such as a guitar and concentrate and observe just the guitar.
I recently read a book called “Anger Wisdom for Cooling the Flames” by Thich Nhat Hanh (a Buddhist Monk). In it he does focus a lot on mindfulness skills (mainly observing) and how important they are to help get a hold of anger. I suggest that everyone check it out. Actually, I’d suggest to anyone to check out any book by Thich Nhat Hanh.
In DBT, there are four categories of Distress Tolerance strategies. These are:
Distracting Self-Soothing Improving the Moment Focusing on the Pros and Cons
These are strategies that short circuit or help you to cope with overwhelming negative emotions or intolerable situations. They take a lot of practice, but as you get the hang of using some of these techniques, you will see your relationship to the negative emotions and intolerable feelings change. (This was the most amazing thing about DBT for me, that things I though could never change or that I could never learn to deal with did become better.)
It takes time and practice, and so I urge you to give the techniques plenty of practice. You will find some things work better than others for you. And you will find that some things don’t work at first, but over time and practice you will see some results.
Some of us may recognize these techniques as things that we already use. But many of us have never learned how to self-soothe, how to do those often simple things that makes us feel better. These are mostly very physical techniques, that use different body senses. Some of us have never had the feeling that we could do things to make ourselves feel better, calmer, feel relaxation or pleasure. I urge you to experiment with these techniques until you find some that are comfortable and helpful for you. And when you find these, practice them. Use them when you are feeling distressed, when emotions feel overwhelming, when situations feel like you can’t stand them any more. Instead of doing something that hurts you, try something that gives you pleasure and comfort,
SELF-SOOTHING has to do with comforting, nurturing and being kind to yourself. One way to think of this is to think of ways of soothing each of your five senses:
Vision Hearing Smell Taste Touch
VISION: Walk in a pretty part of town. Look at the nature around you. Go to a museum with beautiful art. Buy a flower and put it where you can see it. Sit in a garden. Watch the snowflakes decorate the trees during a snowfall. Light a candle and watch the flame. Look at a book with beautiful scenery or beautiful art. Watch a travel movie or video.
HEARING: Listen to beautiful or soothing music, or to tapes of the ocean or other sounds of nature. Listen to a baby gurgling or a small animal. Sit by a waterfall. Listen to someone chopping wood. When you are listening, be mindful, letting the sounds come and go.
SMELL: Smell breakfast being cooked at home or in a restaurant. Notice all the different smells around you. Walk in a garden or in the woods, maybe just after a rain, and breathe in the smells of nature. Light a scented candle or incense. Bake some bread or a cake, and take in all the smells.
TASTE: Have a special treat, and eat it slowly, savoring each bite. Cook a favorite meal. Drink a soothing drink like herbal tea or hot chocolate. Let the taste run over your tongue and slowly down your throat. Go to a potluck, and eat a little bit of each dish, mindfully tasting each new thing.
TOUCH: Take a bubble bath. Pet your dog or cat or cuddle a baby. Put on a silk shirt shirt or blouse, and feel its softness and smoothness. Sink into a really comfortable bed. Float or swim in a pool, and feel the water caress your body.
Many of us may feel like we don’t deserve these comforts, and may find it hard to give pleasure to ourselves in this way. Do you have these feelings?
Some of may also expect this soothing to come from other people, or not want to do it for ourselves. Have you experienced this feeling?
You may feel guilty about pleasuring yourself in this way. It may take some practice to allow yourself to experience these pleasures. These are really simple human pleasures that everyone has a right to, and that will give us some good tools to use when we are feeling bad.
Try at least one of these self-soothing exercises this week. You may want to choose a whole group of things, say all the visual things, or you may want to choose a single thing to try. As you do what you have chosen, do it mindfully. Breathe gently, and try to be fully in the experience, whether it is walking in the woods or watching a flower or taking a bubble bath or smelling some fresh-baked bread.
As you begin to overcome your feelings that perhaps you do not deserve this, or guilt, and start to enjoy one or more of these activities, you will be learning very useful tools to help you deal with negative feelings and difficult situations.
There are four groups of crisis survival strategies: Distraction, Self-Soothing, Improving the Moment, Pros and Cons. All of these are strategies that help us to get though difficult feelings and situations, to tolerate (deal with, get through, sit with, accept) the things that we can’t immediately change. This is one of the keys to DBT skill usage, to find some of these skills and techniques that work for you, to practice them until they are part of your everyday life and you can call them up whenever you need them.
The first of the four distracting skills is ACCEPTS. This is an acronym to help you remember “Wise Mind A C C E P T S”
Distract with Activities: Do hobbies, watch a video, go for a walk, play a sport, cook, garden, go fishing, go shopping.
What other activities can you think of that you can get involved in and distract yourself from your distress? Make a list of your activities and put it up on your refrigerator, so you can find it in a hurry.
Distract with Contributing: Contribute. Do volunteer work. Babysit so a friend can go out. Do something nice or surprising for someone.
What have you done this week to contribute? What can you do next week to contribute? Plan something in advance. This takes you away from your pain and puts your attention on your concern for someone else.
Distract with Comparisons: Compare yourself to people coping the same as or less well than you. If you are doing better than you were a year or two or five years ago, make that comparison. The manual suggests that you compare yourself to others’ suffering, watch weepy soap operas, read about disasters. Some people find this helpful, others don’t. Just do what works for you.
What do you think about comparisons?
Distract with opposite Emotions Read emotional books, go to emotional movies, listen to emotional music. For this to work, you need to read or watch or listen to things that have an emotion opposite to one you are feeling. If you are sad, watch a comedy. Watch a scary movie. Listen to silly music. I think that the reason this works is that it kind of jars your feelings loose. If you are sad or angry, watch a silly or funny movie, and bust up laughing, you have changed your emotion and put yourself in a different place.
Distract by Pushing Away a distressing situation by leaving it mentally for awhile.
Build an imaginary wall between yourself and the situation. Imagine yourself pushing it away with all your strength.
Block the situation in your mind. Each time it comes up, tell it to go away, or put some other thoughts in its place, perhaps some more pleasant thoughts. Refuse to think about it. Try putting the pain on a shelf, or in a box, to contain it and get it out of the way. I use the technique of putting my distress in a locked box on a shelf in a closet. I can get it later, but right now I can let it go.
All of these are techniques to give you a break from dealing with the pain all the time. They haven’t resolved the painful situation, but they have put it away for awhile so that you get a break and a chance to live some part of your life without it.
Distract with other Thoughts Some examples are counting to 10 or counting the tiles in a floor or the panes in a window or the stars in the sky, anything to keep your focus on the counting. This is a good one to use in a sudden emergency, when you need to pull something out of your bag of tricks really quickly. Other ways of distracting with thoughts are reading, watching videos or movies, doing crossword puzzles or jigsaw puzzles, writing poetry, if you can keep your thoughts away from your pain.
Can you think of some other ways of distracting with thoughts?
Distract with other Sensations.
You might hold ice in your hand or apply it to the back of your neck (I used to use a bag of frozen peas against the back of my neck - the sensation was kind of shocking, and it shook me out of my tangled up distressing feelings), put a rubber band on your wrist and snap it, listen to loud music, take a hot, hard shower, a cold, hard shower, or swim in very cold water. Any strong physical stimulus like this can kind of jog loose your connection to your pain and distract you from it. After you try one of these activities, you may want to go on to another distracting activities, such as one of the activities described in the last lesson.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”—Brene Brown