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Treating Impulsive Behavior, II: Building Emotional Muscles

How can mindfulness address self-destructive behavior? (Part II)

If you struggle with self-destructive (dysregulated) behavior, you probably have tried numerous methods aimed at stopping the behavior.

You may not have understood how the methods were supposed to help you stop the behavior - or even known whether the methods had any actual evidence of effectiveness.

You also may not have understood why you had so much trouble resisting the behavior in the first place.

However, giving up dysregulated behavior is extremely difficult in the best of conditions. This difficulty can increase if you do not:

  • understand why you find the behavior so compelling, or
  • understand how your chosen method is supposed to work at stopping the behavior (or even know if the method has any evidence of effectiveness).

This post is part of a series that will provide evidenced-backed explanations of:

  • why some people find dysregulated behaviors almost impossible to resist, and
  • how mindfulness can address dysregulated behavior.(You can read previous posts here and here.)

The explanations are oversimplified due to space limitations, but they provide a general idea.

A review: Dysregulated behavior may help “turn off" uncomfortable emotions, but it's like putting an airtight lid on a pot of boiling water. The steam and pressure (emotions) continue to build – until you may feel almost-constant pressure. Eventually the pot will boil over, and then emotions and urges will feel even more intolerable.

In contrast, mindfulness practice involves purposeful awareness of and attention to the present moment – including emotions and (possibly) cravings/urges. Therefore, mindfulness can be like poking a hole in the lid of the boiling pot – decreasing the pressure and intensity of the emotions and urges.

Today’s post focuses on a second way mindfulness can help decrease dysregulated behaviors, especially when practiced as a part of empirically supported mental-health treatment. (Warning: I will be mixing metaphors.)

Remember: Mindfulness practice involves purposely experiencing and tolerating current emotions, thoughts, sensations, and urges. Therefore, mindfulness helps a person build emotional muscles. For example:

  • If you gave me a 40-pound box and told me to carry it around everywhere I went, my muscles would feel exhausted by the end of the day and painful for the next several days, because I’m not used to lifting weights.
  • But if I went to the gym and engaged in regular weight training - and then you gave me a 40-pound box and told me I had to carry it around everywhere I went,
  • I still wouldn’t enjoy the experience. (You wouldn’t be one of my favorite people.)
  • But I could carry the box around without feeling exhausted and without being in pain the next few days.
  • Even though the box weighed exactly the same as it had before, it would feel as though it were much lighter and easier to carry.
  • Because my muscles would be stronger - strong enough that I could carry the weight without it causing additional pain or keeping me from living my life.

Let’s face it: We all experience unpleasant emotions – whether they be boredom, irritation, anxiety, loneliness, and/or sadness -- on a fairly regular basis. Mindfulness practice can help you build your emotional muscles, so unpleasant emotions and urges feel less “heavy” – or, in other words, less exhausting, less disruptive, and easier to handle.

When emotions and urges feel less draining and easier to handle, you can experience emotions and urges without feeling compelled to engage in dysregulated behaviors that can often:

  • lead you to feel even worse about yourself afterward, and
  • cause the unpleasant emotions to increase in the long run.

Instead, you can experience the emotions without straining your metaphorical muscles. You can let the emotions pass without feeling depleted or distressed afterwards.

I must add a disclaimer. The above explanation makes the process sound easier than it is.

Mindfulness is not magic. Mindfulness is everywhere these days, and its effects have often been misunderstood and/or exaggerated – to the point that some people think mindfulness is a cure-all, and others feel irritated when they even hear (read) the word. Please note that these posts only contain information backed by research.

Mindfulness practice will also NOT give you the power to stop a dysregulated behavior without feeling cravings/urges. Sometimes these cravings/urges may even feel excruciating – at least at first.

Mindfulness also doesn’t exist in a void. Your odds of success will increase dramatically if mindfulness is practiced as a component of evidenced-based treatment delivered by a qualified professional. Support from important others and/or a support group will also increase your odds of success.

To summarize, mindfulness, when practiced in the context of empirically support treatment, can help:

  • release steam from the boiling pot (decrease chronic pressure and help urges feel less intense), and
  • build emotional muscles (help emotions/urges feel less exhausting, more tolerable, and easier to handle).

Upcoming posts will discuss additional methods through which mindfulness can help decrease dysregulated behavior. Until then, remember:

  • overcoming dysregulated behavior may often feel overwhelming and excruciating, and
  • you deserve to understand how (and if) methods aimed at stopping the behavior actually work.

*Special thanks to Rakhel Shapiro, Martin Viola, Qian Li, and Amanda Reed for their contributions to this series.

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