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Managing Anxiety Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Core Mindfulness Skills

As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) intensively trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), I have witnessed firsthand the transformative power of core mindfulness skills in managing and alleviating anxiety. Mindfulness, a foundational component of DBT, is not just a trendy term; it is a set of practical skills that can significantly enhance emotional regulation, reduce anxiety, and improve overall mental health.

Managing Anxiety Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Core Mindfulness Skills


What Are Core Mindfulness Skills?

Mindfulness, in its essence, is the practice of being fully present and engaged in the current moment without judgment. In DBT, mindfulness is broken down into specific skills that individuals can develop and use in their daily lives. These core skills are categorized into "What" skills (observe, describe, and participate) and "How" skills (non-judgmentally, one-mindfully, and effectively).


The "What" Skills

  1. Observe: This skill involves noticing events, emotions, and thoughts without trying to change them. It’s about being a passive observer of your inner and outer experiences. For example, when feeling anxious, one might simply notice the racing heart or the swirling thoughts without trying to suppress or alter them.

  2. Describe: This skill requires putting words to your observations. Describing involves labeling what you observe without adding interpretations or judgments. For instance, instead of saying "I am anxious," you might describe, "I notice a tightness in my chest and a rapid heartbeat."

  3. Participate: This skill involves fully engaging in the current activity with undivided attention. It means being in the moment, whether you're working, exercising, or talking with someone. Participation helps shift focus from anxious thoughts to the task at hand, reducing anxiety's impact.


The "How" Skills

  1. Non-judgmentally: Practicing mindfulness non-judgmentally means observing and describing without adding labels like "good" or "bad." For example, instead of labeling a racing heart as "bad" or "scary," simply recognize it as a bodily sensation.

  2. One-mindfully: This skill involves focusing on one thing at a time. Multitasking often increases stress and anxiety. By doing one thing at a time and giving it your full attention, you can reduce the cognitive load and anxiety that comes from trying to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously.

  3. Effectively: Acting effectively means doing what works in a given situation rather than what you feel like doing. It’s about being pragmatic and goal-oriented, which can help in managing anxiety-provoking situations by focusing on practical solutions.


How Core Mindfulness Skills Help with Anxiety

Anxiety often stems from a preoccupation with future uncertainties or past regrets. Mindfulness redirects attention to the present moment, breaking the cycle of worry and rumination. Here’s how these core skills can be particularly beneficial:


  1. Reducing Rumination and Worry:- Anxiety is often fueled by repetitive, negative thoughts about the future. Observing and describing thoughts and feelings as they arise helps individuals recognize these patterns without getting entangled in them. This awareness creates a space between the individual and their thoughts, reducing the power of anxious rumination.

  2. Enhancing Emotional Regulation:- By observing emotions without judgment and describing them accurately, individuals can better understand their emotional responses. This understanding is the first step toward regulating emotions effectively. For instance, recognizing that a racing heart is a symptom of anxiety, not a heart attack, can prevent panic and promote a calmer response.

  3. Improving Focus and Concentration: - One-mindfulness helps individuals focus on one task at a time, reducing the scattered attention that often accompanies anxiety. This improved focus not only enhances productivity but also reduces the stress of juggling multiple concerns simultaneously.

  4. Increasing Self-Awareness and Acceptance: - Mindfulness cultivates self-awareness, allowing individuals to recognize and accept their thoughts and feelings without judgment. This acceptance can reduce the internal conflict that exacerbates anxiety. By viewing anxiety as a part of the human experience rather than a personal failing, individuals can approach their feelings with compassion and understanding.

  5. Promoting Effective Problem-Solving: - Acting effectively means focusing on what works rather than what feels comfortable or familiar. This pragmatic approach can help individuals address anxiety-provoking situations with practical solutions rather than avoidance or maladaptive coping mechanisms.


Practical Tips for Incorporating Mindfulness into Daily Life

Start with Small Steps:-

Begin by integrating short mindfulness practices into your daily routine. This could be as simple as taking a few deep breaths, observing your surroundings, or mindfully eating a meal. These small practices can build a foundation for more extended mindfulness activities.


  1. Create a Mindfulness Routine:- Set aside specific times each day for mindfulness practice. This could be in the morning to set a calm tone for the day, during lunch to reset your mind, or in the evening to unwind. Consistency helps in making mindfulness a habit.

  2. Use Guided Meditations:- Guided meditations can be a helpful tool for beginners. There are numerous apps and online resources available that offer structured mindfulness exercises. These can provide guidance and support as you develop your mindfulness practice. You can access guided meditations from our website [here](https://www.alignedcarecenter.com/resources).

  3. Engage in Mindful Activities:- Incorporate mindfulness into daily activities such as walking, cleaning, or even driving. Focus on the sensations, sights, and sounds of the activity, engaging fully in the present moment. This can transform mundane tasks into opportunities for mindfulness practice.

  4. Practice Self-Compassion:- Mindfulness is not about achieving a perfect state of calm but about being present and accepting of whatever arises. Practice self-compassion and patience as you develop these skills, recognizing that mindfulness is a journey rather than a destination.


Using the SUD Scale (Subjective Units of Distress) with Mindfulness

The Subjective Units of Distress Scale (SUDS) is a simple tool that helps individuals rate their level of distress or anxiety on a scale from 0 (no distress) to 10 (highest distress imaginable). Core mindfulness skills can be applied at any point on the SUDS scale to help manage anxiety effectively.


  1. Low to Moderate Distress (0-5 SUDS): At lower levels of distress, mindfulness can help maintain calm and prevent anxiety from escalating. Practicing observe and describe skills can keep you grounded in the present moment, reducing the likelihood of anxiety spiraling.

  2. Moderate to High Distress (6-10 SUDS): At higher levels of distress, mindfulness can help manage intense emotions and prevent panic. One-mindfulness and participating skills are particularly useful in these situations, as they help redirect attention from distressing thoughts to present activities.


You can download the SUD scale from my website [here]

Core mindfulness skills offer practical and effective tools for managing anxiety. By observing, describing, and participating in the present moment non-judgmentally, one-mindfully, and effectively, individuals can reduce anxious thoughts, enhance emotional regulation, and improve overall well-being. As a therapist trained in DBT, I have seen the profound impact these skills can have on clients' lives, empowering them to navigate anxiety with greater resilience and calm. Incorporating mindfulness into daily life may require practice and patience, but the benefits are well worth the effort.


Photo by Karolina Grabowska:

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