The Value of Mindfulness to DBT & Counseling Goals
I utilize DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skills in my private practice for many clients to help them reach their goals for counseling. Jon Kabat-Zinn defined MINDFULNESS as “paying attention, on purpose, without judgment to what is happening in the moment.” The mindfulness skills and meditations practiced in DBT underlie every other skill that is taught—Emotion Regulation, Distress Tolerance, and Interpersonal Effectiveness. Mindfulness is the path to wise mind. Mindfulness serves to help you regulate your emotions for painful memories that are often part of the counseling experience. In my experience, clients sometimes devalue the mindfulness exercise. They ask “what has mindfulness to do with my anger issues, depression, anxiety, personal relationships, …?” Often clients may come to see it as a task to get through, impatient to get to what they really want to learn. For some clients the problem may be that mindfulness makes them very uncomfortable. That could be because focusing their mind may bring about painful emotions. Or maybe they worry they aren’t doing it right, after all their mind is jumping around all over the place.
My explanation focuses upon how the brain works for learning new skills. From brain studies, experts have found that repetition strengthens neural pathways that cause us to form habits, both good and bad. “Neurons that fire together, wire together” is true in the sense that if you are angry more days than not, the strength of that anger response was developed over repeated offenses. Before long, others are avoiding you, fearful of your attitude. In contrast, each time you practice mindfulness you are literally re-wiring your brain to become calmer, more focused, better able to learn new ways of being; you are learning to assess your situation and make wise decisions that help resolve problems rather than make them worse.
Mindfulness also makes learning new skills easier. When people are calm, they are better able to focus upon new information and take in new ideas, new thoughts. Whenever a person is distressed, anxious, angry, or a myriad of other strong emotions, their ability to learn diminishes relative to the degree of that distress. So if one wants to be an effective, efficient learner, a ritual habit of mindfulness is essential. In DBT, mindfulness is the core skill that makes the other skills possible.