Using the Practice of Mindfulness to Harness Emotions

by Jancey Wickstrom, AM, LCSW - Clinical Training and Outcomes Director

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Mindfulness has been helping people lean in to their emotions and tap into their own wise minds for centuries. Mindfulness can mean many different things, but at TK, we use mindfulness daily to help our residents (and ourselves) become aware of the thoughts and emotions we have all day, every day.

Just as we are not aware of the air we breathe, people who struggle with emotion regulation are so immersed in their thoughts and emotions they are not even aware they are having thoughts and emotions. For someone with depression thinking, “I’m worthless” is as easy and automatic as breathing; for someone with an eating disorder “I’m fat and unlovable” doesn’t even register as a thought- it’s just experienced as the truth.

The way a person can begin to differentiate their authentic selves from an overlearned and automatic “disease” thought is to practice noticing when they are having thoughts during a mindfulness activity. By picking an anchor for attention (for example, the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe in and out), and being open to noticing any distractions (from the mind, outside noises, or body sensations) and choosing to return to the anchor over and over again, we learn to prioritize our attention- to decide what we want to pay attention to.

By practicing choosing what we pay attention to, when we’re in the moments that matter- the moments where we have to decide between old behaviors or behaviors that will get us closer to our meaningful lives, we don’t have to rely on untested methods/muscles. Instead, because we’ve practiced lassoing our attention during mindfulness practice, it can be relied upon as a habit in difficult moments. This is the same reason we don’t pick up our instrument to start rehearsing a song on the night of the concert- we need to show up already practiced and ready to successfully perform.

Once we recognize our overlearned automatic thoughts and emotions as just that- thoughts and emotions and not directives, we can begin to live life based on our commitments and values.

A depressed person can recognize the automatic thought “I’m worthless” show up in the morning, and then choose to prioritize her attention to what she’s decided her day needs to be about- work, family, friends, and whatever else makes up her meaningful life. She is no longer drowning in her thoughts; instead she sees them for what they are and continues on with her meaningful life.

How might you make time for mindfulness?

This is the second post in a series by Jancey on DBT. Read the first post that introduces dialectical behavioral therapy here.

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