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Mindfulness in the Treatment of Self-Destructive Behavior

How can mindfulness address something that feels so overwhelming?

If you struggle with self-destructive or dysregulated behavior, you have probably tried to stop engaging in this behavior many times. However, despite your best efforts, you have likely felt compelled to start engaging in the behavior again. Many times.

Dysregulated behaviors include behaviors that provide relief or pleasure in the short-term – but often cause negative consequences over time. In my last post, I explained why some people find certain dysregulated behaviors almost impossible to resist.

In a nutshell, you may have learned to use dysregulated behavior to try to “turn off” painful or uncomfortable emotions. However, trying to “turn off” emotions is like putting an airtight lid on a pot of boiling water. The steam and pressure (the emotions and–eventually–urges) will continue to build, until you may feel you are almost constantly under pressure. Eventually, the pot will explode, which is when emotions and/or urges feel especially unbearable. Consequently, you may feel compelled to try to “turn off” the heightened emotions and urges by engaging in the dysregulated behavior again.

And the spiral will continue.

However, methods exist to improve your chances of breaking free of this spiral. One of those methods is mindfulness practice.

Now, if you’re rolling your eyes, you’re not alone. Mindfulness has been over-hyped, and its effects have sometimes been misunderstood or exaggerated. But I urge you to work to keep an open mind.

First, let’s define what mindfulness is and is not.

  • Mindfulness involves the ability to experience and tolerate the present moment – including emotions, thoughts, sensations, and (potentially) urges – without feeling compelled to immediately "turn off" the experience or act on the urges.
  • Mindfulness is not: an altered state, hypnosis, pure bliss, a cure-all, a relaxation exercise, or the absence of all negative emotions like some sort of Zen zombie. (Note: People often do find mindfulness practice relaxing, which is fine. However, the purpose is not to try to relax. The purpose is to be aware of and attentive to the moment – whether that experience is relaxing or not.)

Mindfulness, when integrated with empirically supported therapy, can disrupt the spiral of dysregulation in several ways. This post will be the first in a series explaining how mindfulness can help you move beyond dysregulated behavior. Explanations will be oversimplified due to space constraints, but they will provide a general idea.

Today’s post will focus on the metaphor of the boiling pot.

  • When you put a lid tightly on a boiling pot, the steam and pressure will eventually build. (In other words, when you try not to feel negative emotions, the emotions will eventually build.)
  • Over time, you may feel like you are almost always under pressure.
  • In contrast, mindfulness involves purposely experiencing and tolerating current emotions and (if applicable) urges.
  • Therefore, mindfulness practice is like poking a hole in the lid of the metaphorical pot and releasing some of the steam – releasing some of the pressure of the emotions and urges.
  • Consequently, mindfulness practice can lower the almost-constant feeling of pressure.
  • As the pressure decreases, the emotions and urges eventually feel less intense and overwhelming.
  • As a result, the emotions and urges become easier to tolerate and regulate, and the urges become easier to resist.

The process is not easy, to say the least. The process of overcoming entrenched dysregulated behavior can be one of the most difficult challenges a person can undertake. However, mindfulness, when integrated into empirically supported treatment, may help increase the odds of success.

The take-home message: Mindfulness, when learned and practiced with a qualified metal-health professional, can

  • decrease chronic feelings of pressure, and
  • help emotions and cravings feel more tolerable.

Upcoming posts will discuss additional methods through which mindfulness can address dysregulated behavior. Until then, remember that struggling with dysregulated behavior:

  • does mean you likely have become caught in a vicious spiral.
  • does mean that some tools, treatments, and types of support may help more than others.
  • does not mean you can’t eventually move beyond the behavior to a life that feels more fulfilling.
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