Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder. The simple mindfulness exercises from DBT have since proven effective for treating people in the grips of suicidal depression and self-harming behaviors like cutting.
DBT has also proven useful for treating anxiety because of its focus on mindfulness skills. I took a six month intensive course of DBT several years ago when I was going through a very rough time, due largely to anxiety disorder.
Five Simple DBT Mindfulness Exercises For Anxiety
I didn’t know it then, but my introduction to mindfulness exercises during those six months in DBT provided the foundation for my ability to begin addressing my anxiety issues in a real way, healing them rather than just masking them. I’m eternally grateful to DBT for the relief, skills, and recovery it has brought to my life. It’s something I still use on an almost daily basis.
Below are five simple DBT mindfulness exercises for anxiety that you can easily incorporate into your daily life. They don’t take much time, and regular practice really makes a huge difference in your overall level of anxiety.
1). Observe a leaf (five minutes)
Collect a leaf off the ground from somewhere. This is especially easy in autumn. It doesn’t matter what kind of leaf it is or what it looks like. Any leaf will do.
Hold it in your hands and allow your attention to be fully absorbed by it. Observe it.
Notice things about its physical characteristics. For example, you could say to yourself, “I notice that this leaf has three sharp points on one side, and a rounded edge on the other.” Or, “I see there’s yellowish lines radiating out from the bottom to the top.”
Notice textures, colors, and shapes without judging them as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, ugly or beautiful.
Don’t assess or think about the leaf. Just observe it for what it is. Do this simple mindfulness exercise for five minutes.
2). Mindful eating (four minutes)
3). Observe your thoughts (fifteen minutes)
Find a comfortable position. You can be lying down on your back or sitting. If you are sitting, keep your back straight. Release the tension in your shoulders and just let them drop. Close your eyes.
Focus your attention on your breathing. Simply pay attention to what it feels like in your body as you breathe slowly in and then slowly breathe out. Immerse yourself completely in the experience. Spend a few minutes here. Imagine you are “riding the waves” of your own breath.
Now shift your attention to your thoughts. Become aware of whatever thoughts enter your mind.
Try to view them as simply thoughts — they are only objects in your mind. They are just events happening inside your mind. You can imagine them as clouds passing through the sky, or leaves floating down a stream.
Notice them enter your consciousness, develop, and then float away. You don’t have to hold onto or follow your thoughts. Just let them arise and disappear on their own.
If you become aware you are getting immersed in a thought, notice what took you away from observing them and then gently bring your attention back to having awareness of your thoughts again. Getting immersed in a thought is completely normal. Just notice it and shift your attention back to observing.
Simply shift your attention back to your breathing after doing a few minutes of “thought observing.” Open your eyes when you feel ready.
4). Mindfulness bell exercise (five minutes)
5). Stare at the center (one minute)
Note: This is not technically a DBT mindfulness exercise for anxiety, but it does fall under the broad category of mindful observing. Plus, I just think this video is very cool and relaxing.
Simple mindfulness exercises from DBT — which are designed to bring you fully into the present moment — are a powerful tool for combating anxiety. The DBT “observing” mindfulness exercise can be applied to literally anything — from leaves, to thoughts, to anxiety driving on highways. You can use your “observer mind” in any situation to simply slow down, step back and calm your anxiety.
How will you use this skill in your life today?
PS – If you want to learn more about DBT and anxiety, I highly recommend Alexander Chapman’s excellent 2011 DBT skills building workbook. It presents a DBT-based program for overcoming anxiety that helps readers discover and apply the core DBT skills, practice developing assertiveness, and learn to deal with conflict and anxiety-provoking situations.