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The Beginners Guide to DBT with ADHD Part 2: Mindfulness

Updated: Dec 14, 2023


Crater Lake, Oregon, USA
Photo by Braden Young

This is Part 2 of a 5 part series. For part 1, click here.


Mindfulness Skills

Okay, so what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is intentionally living with awareness in the present moment, without judging or rejecting the moment and without attachment to it. Okay, great, but what does that mean? It means pausing what you're doing and simply focusing on the present moment instead of ignoring the present by holding on to the past or reaching for the future. Practice taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and everything else at this very moment and letting yourself experience each new moment. Noticing consequences and distinguishing between what is helpful and what is harmful—but not evaluating, avoiding, suppressing, or blocking the present moment. In the book “The Neurodivergent Friendly Workbook of DBT Skills,” the author, Karter Ross, notes that “various studies have revealed that our brain can reorganize itself through forming neural connections. This is known as neuroplasticity, and it has virtually no limits.” He then goes on to discuss how mindfulness can help the process of neuroplasticity along with helping brain development in various areas of the brain related to memory, learning, and our emotional state.


The entire concept of neuroplasticity is fascinating, and I explore it even further in this blog post. But the key point here is that mindfulness skills really are an essential skill to learn, and they're even more beneficial for those of us with ADHD. That is one of the reasons I prefer DBT as a treatment for my ADHD over many others that I've tried. However, mindfulness isn’t only used for the long-term benefits of rewiring our brain. It actually has a lot of immediate benefits as well, which is the key reason that it is the first DBT skill learned. Mindfulness practice ties into each of the other three DBT skills in some way, as it allows us to come back to the present moment from wherever our mind is at and be in a mental space where we are able to act on each of the skills we learn.



What is Mindfulness Practice?


“Mindfulness practice” is the intentional practice of mindfulness and mindfulness skills. There are many methods of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness and mindfulness skills can be practiced at any time, anywhere, while doing anything. Intentionally paying attention to the moment without judging it or holding on to it is all that is needed. There are many different kinds of activities that can help you get started with mindfulness if you are having trouble.


Meditation is the practice of being aware and using skills for being aware while sitting, standing, or lying still for a set amount of time. When meditating, we either focus the mind (for example, we focus on body sensations, emotions, thoughts, or our breath) or we open the mind (paying attention to whatever comes into our awareness). There are many forms of meditation that differ mostly by whether we are opening the mind or focusing the mind—and, if focusing, depending on what is the focus of our attention.


Contemplative prayer is a spiritual mindfulness practice like Christian centering prayer, the rosary, Jewish Shema, Islamic Sufi practice, and Hindu raja yoga.


Mindfulness movement also has many forms. Examples include yoga, martial arts (such as Qigong, tai chi, akido, and karate), and spiritual dancing. Hiking, horseback riding, and walking can also be ways to practice mindfulness.


“What” and “How” Skills and the “Wise Mind”


Therapists use DBT to show and teach their patients how to be aware, which helps them learn how to control their emotions, solve conflicts with other people, and get through a crisis without making it worse and causing panic. Mindfulness is also a key part of accessing the Wise Mind concept. The DBT concept of "Wise Mind" is a combination of our "Reasonable Mind" and "Emotion Mind." Think of this as “left brain” and “right brain,” respectively. The Wise Mind enables us to understand what's true and real, so we will make better decisions about how to reply and react.


What do we do to practice mindfulness? There are three “What” skills we can use to get to our Wise Mind.


The "observe" skill teaches us to identify and be conscious of our sensory experiences. It teaches us to use our five senses without labeling how they make us feel. This was a hard one for me to do at first because my brain automatically wants to put a label on everything. But the key component here is to let the sensations come and go without labeling them or associating emotions with them.


Practicing the “observe” skill trains us to be present in the moment, to feel alive, and to not think about, associate with, or worry about what is going to happen in the future. Instead, you are focused on the reality of “here and now.” When we are present in the moment, it’s much easier to use our Wise Mind to make decisions.

An exercise I frequently use to practice this skill is to go to a park bench near where I work and just sit and watch and listen to the goings-on around me. As I am doing this, I will also pay attention to my breathing and the feeling of the air going in and out of my lungs. This is especially effective on brisk mornings when the cold air fills my lungs. The “describe” skill builds off of the “observe” skill in that, this time, you want to focus on describing things exactly as they are but without labeling them. This teaches us to describe things without adding our own assumptions or interpretations to them. It teaches us not to let our feelings change what we see, because doing so can change the facts. A key note here is that, if it wasn’t observed, it can’t be described. For example, you can’t observe the thoughts or intentions of another person, so you can’t describe them. You also can’t observe the feelings or emotions of another person and, therefore, can’t describe them.


A good way to practice describing is to write down your descriptions. Keeping a journal allows you to go back and reflect on your descriptions at a later time.


The “participate” skill is all about immersing yourself in the experience. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, you allow yourself to be the “yes” person and immerse yourself in the activity without judgment, self-consciousness, or fear. It's not about the standard of what you're doing; rather, it's about the standard of your experience. I see this as a combination of the "observe" and "describe" skills in action, so that you can observe and describe the experience without worrying about how you or others will judge it. This lets you enjoy the experience and have a great time with it.

So now that we’ve got the “what” skills, we’ll work on “how” we incorporate them into helping us get into Wise Mind. (See what I did there?) To do this, we need to do some different mindfulness exercises. We already talked about a few of them. So let’s start with an easy one.


Five Senses is an exercise you can quickly and easily do when you don’t have a lot of time. It’s about using your five senses to observe the present moment. Use the “observe” skill to notice at least one thing that you either see, feel, hear, smell, or taste. Try describing it using the “describe” skill.



Waves splashing up on rocks in front of a sun setting on the ocean.
Photo by Braden Young


Another exercise we can do is one we already mentioned: meditation. The key to mindful meditation is to observe the present moment without judgment. If you have ADHD or are new to meditation, it’s probably best to start in 5-minute increments. This may seem like a short amount of time, but if you take breaks to do this multiple times a day, you’ll find it will become second nature, and eventually you will be able to do it for longer periods of time.


Sit in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. Sit with your back straight, your arms at your sides, and the palms of your hands on the tops of your thighs.


Then focus on your breathing. Pay close attention to how you breathe in and out and the sounds they make. Try to do this for the entire time. Your breathing is how you bring yourself back to the present moment.


Your mind will begin to wander (because that’s what our ADHD brains do), and that is alright. Just take note of your thoughts without judgment, and then go back to your breathing.


You may also experience some uneasy feelings while meditating, and that is alright too. Again, just accept your feelings without passing judgment on them, and then bring your attention back to the way you are breathing.


The last mindfulness exercise I will mention is to simply get out and go for a walk. Mindful walking is a good way to give your legs a stretch while also practicing your mindfulness skills. First, pay attention to how your body moves and how it feels as you walk. Notice the sensation of your feet touching the ground and any aches in your joints. Notice how fast your heart is beating.


Now, pay more attention to what is going on around you. What do your five senses pick up? Can you feel the wind or sun on your face?


These are just a few of the many mindfulness exercises you can try to hone your mindfulness skills.



Practice Makes Perfect

Mindfulness is far and away the most important skill of all the DBT skills you will learn. It is the one that will be most helpful at bringing you back from the edge when your emotional dysregulation is threatening to blow you into disarray. You will also notice as we go through the other DBT skills that mindful practices are sprinkled into many of the tools and techniques you will use.


When you do mindfulness exercises on a regular basis, you will find yourself succumbing to bad habits or letting fear of the future and bad memories from the past control you far less. You can finally learn to focus on the present and deal with life's challenges in a calm, confident way.


You can change the way your brain works so that you have a fully conscious mind that is free of self-limiting thought patterns. This will allow you to be fully present and focus on positive emotions that can help you be more compassionate and understand yourself and the people around you.


See you all in Part 3 of this series as we talk about Emotional Regulation.



 


If you find this article interesting and want to learn more or have a comment, feel free to leave a comment below. Or better yet, come talk to us about it on our discord server! We have a lot of great people who love to talk about ADHD, neurodivergence, nerdy stuff, and all the things. We've also got a lot of links to resources for further reading and personal growth.


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