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Treating Impulsive Behavior, III: Finding the Pause Button

How can mindfulness address self-destructive behaviors? (Part III)

If you are working to overcome self-destructive (dysregulated) behavior, you deserve to understand how your chosen method for addressing the behavior actually works. You also deserve to know whether that method is backed by evidence.

This post is part of a series designed to provide research-backed explanations of:

  • why resisting dysregulated behavior can seem almost impossible for some people (more info here), and

A quick review: Dysregulated behaviors may seem to “turn off” unpleasant emotions and urges in the short-term, but the emotions/urges (and related pressure) usually return with even greater intensity. In contrast, mindfulness practice involves intentional awareness of and attention to the current moment (including emotions and urges). Therefore:

  • Mindfulness (when practiced in the context of empirically supported treatment) can help release chronic feelings of pressure and help emotions and urges feel less overwhelming. (More info here.)
  • Mindfulness practice can also build emotional muscles (somewhat like lifting weights builds physical muscles), which can help emotions/urges feel less draining, more tolerable, and easier to handle. (More info here.)

Today’s post focuses on a third way mindfulness can address dysregulated behavior, especially when practiced in the context of mental-health treatment. (This post includes yet another metaphor to add to the mix.) As always, these descriptions are oversimplified due to space limitations, but they provide a general idea.

  • If you are like most people who struggle with dysregulated behavior, you have become so conditioned to using the behavior as a coping mechanism that you sometimes engage in the behavior as an almost-automatic reaction.
  • You may be able to resist the behavior for hours or even days – but then suddenly have a moment when you engage in the behavior almost before you realize you're going to do so.
  • Many people will say they felt like they barely even realized they were going to eat that piece of cake or drink that alcohol or yell at that person – but that something happened, and they reacted first and thought later.
  • At times you may feel like you are controlled by your emotions and urges – as opposed to having a choice about how to respond.
  • You may feel like you can never trust yourself – because no matter how much you promise yourself that you will resist the behavior, you never know when you will have a moment when you suddenly feel like you no longer have control.
  • And after you do engage in the behavior and the rush/relief has worn off, you likely feel ashamed, discouraged, angry (at yourself), and stuck.
  • However, it is extremely difficult to use some of the standard therapy skills (like counting to 10 or thinking of negative consequences) if you feel like you are reacting automatically and barely thinking at all.
  • In contrast, mindfulness--when practice with a mental health professional--can help you hit the “pause button” before reacting.
  • Mindfulness practice fosters the ability to be aware of emotions and cravings/urges, while also helping those emotions/cravings/urges feel less intolerable and overwhelming.
  • Therefore, mindfulness can help you

I want to again stress that overcoming dysregulated behavior can feel excruciating and near-impossible. Explanations in these posts are based on results from clinical research and clinical experience. Thus, all information is based on the practice of mindfulness:

  • within therapies that include mindfulness as a basic component, or
  • within theoretically sound integrations of mindfulness into other therapies.

Therefore, if you want to work toward overcoming dysregulated behavior and are interested in mindfulness practice, I encourage you to seek out a mental-health professional who conducts treatment that includes a mindfulness component.

I am not saying that mindfulness practice cannot provide benefits on its own – or that moving past dysregulated behavior is impossible without the help of a professional. However, moving past dysregulated behavior is extremely difficult even in the best of circumstances, and your odds of success will improve markedly if you seek support from a qualified professional.

The next post in the series will continue to discuss methods through which mindfulness can address dysregulated behavior. Until then, remember that if you struggle with dysregulated behavior:

  • You may sometimes automatically react with habitual behavior regardless of how hard you work to resist.
  • Such reactions are common and understandable.
  • However, you can gain the ability to react according to your values instead of feeling controlled by emotions and urges.
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