Mindfulness Practices that Help to Settle the Emotional Brain – Step 9 (slide set 1)

**The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and communicated without reference to supporting documentation. Any uses of “she” or “he” in the communication of ideas are not intended to covey sexual bias. Breakaway MHE Disclaimer

Author: Peter Miller

Please note: I credit much of my understanding of applying mindfulness to Borderline Personality Disorder to Marsha Linehan.

If you have been following the 9-Steps from the beginning, then you have probably developed the understanding that Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) has a lot to do with an unhealthy balance between emotion and logic. There is generally an over-abundance of emotion and not enough logical reasoning when BPD symptoms are active in a person. It can be like living a life of “getting stuck” on matters of perceived importance because the emotions connected to the matters of perceived importance are so intense (meaning the emotions are not regulated). When you continue “getting stuck” on thoughts and feelings, it then becomes very difficult to work with others and solve the common problems we are faced with in this life. When most or all of our attempts at solving problems do not go well, the eventual end point is often some form of giving up or giving in, including playing a role in all sorts of harm to self and others.

This final slide set of the 9-Steps goes through some mindfulness exercises and related principles for you to practice as you see fit. The information and ideas included may be a starting point for you and/or possibly inspire you to move on to similar forms of self-help in the future. I hope it does inspire you to continue onwards. You are so worth it!

The point of learning mindfulness practices is to progressively and effectively settle down the emotional areas of the brain that are “over-active” in Borderline Personality Disorder (e.g., the Amygdala). It is also an activity that nurtures “rewiring of the brain” sufficient to improve overall brain/body functioning. Mindfulness has been studied extensively and proven useful for making the improvements that people with BPD require… in particular, emotion regulation, executive neurocognition, and memory systems.

Committing to a mindfulness practice (or set of practices) has the potential to alter the way emotions are experienced such that the body’s fight, flight, freeze response is not getting unnecessarily activated. It also helps a person with BPD to have more “space” between things that happen and deciding how to respond to what happens, meaning that there is less of a rush to respond. When there is little to no space between “event” and “response”, this is just impulsive “reacting”; and no doubt, this has been a major issue in your functioning if you have BPD. Without a mindfulness practice, and therefore being without a more settled and better connected brain, you are left with increased odds of making many decisions that result in many unwanted outcomes.

One of the first mindfulness practices I learned was how to observe and (objectively) describe an object. What this means is to simply describe what you see outside of yourself without making any judgments or using any labels. So for instance, if I was to observe and describe the image in the first slide, I might notice “black dots in a curved formation, placed on top of a flat surface that includes greens and yellows, and that the dots are placed near the bottom left and right edges of the flat surfaces”. I might also notice “a black oval shape attached to four nearly triangle shaped objects, and that the top two attached objects have slightly bigger dimensions than the bottom two attached objects”.

In none of my observing and describing did I say words like “butterfly”, or “beautiful”, or “unnatural”, or “artificial” – all of these kinds of wording would have been judgmental and short-cutting the mindfulness process. It takes time to be mindful, and this is part of the reason that it works so well to help you settle the brain down. You are deliberately practicing NOT using short-cuts or making assumptions about what you see. You are also deliberately practicing NOT using emotionally loaded words. In the throes of BPD, when there is all kinds of drama and problems with functioning, a person (or groups of persons) are caught up in short-cutting, making assumptions, and using extreme/emotionally loaded language.

Now it is your turn! Make an attempt to observe and (objectively) describe the image in the slide just above these words. What types of shapes do you see? Are there round parts, pointy parts, or curved parts? What types of colors and mixtures of colors do you see? Are there different shades of colors? Is there any shading or shadows? How big do the parts of the object appear to you (in millimeters, centimeters, or inches)?

If, while you’re doing this activity, you find your mind drifting off into memories of the past or thoughts about the future, then gently bring yourself back to observing and (objectively) describing the object. If you find that you are judging yourself as you do this, then notice you’re judging and come back to observing and (objectively) describing the object. If you find yourself judging the activity as “being ridiculous” or “a waste of time”, then notice that you are judging the activity and come back.

If the mindfulness activity is working to produce the desired effect, then you should be noticing a calmness and less tension in yourself. If this is happening for you, then congratulations! You are feeling what it’s like to exist in the present moment! I believe the present moment is the healthiest place to be when it comes to mental health. You are literally freeing yourself from the disease process that is Borderline Personality Disorder when you engage in practices like this and are experiencing present moment awareness.

Once you have experienced the benefits of doing one mindfulness practice, your openness to learning other mindfulness practices will probably remain strong, just as mine did. If you are now starting to experience moments of calmness and clarity, then why would you want to go backwards? If you are improving in your ability to better see what’s happening when it’s happening (to see reality as it is instead of relying on assumptions), then why would you want to let go of this capacity? The more regularly you practice mindfulness, the more freedom and power you have to choose your responses to life events, and therefore choose your destiny. Through your consistent mindfulness practice and noticing your functional improvements, you will probably wonder how you ever lived without it.

In the third slide of this set you will see the “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” practice. This practice is pretty self-explanatory and also works really great for bringing you into present moment awareness. All that it involves is finding five things each that you see, hear, and feel; then four things each that you see, hear, and feel; then three things… etc. Start by locating 5 things you see, then move on to 5 things you hear, and then finally move on to 5 things you feel. For example, I SEE “the sun”, “a mirror”, “a piece of plastic”, “a set of keys”, and “a pair of gloves”; I HEAR “music playing”, “a heater blowing air”, “the rustling of my jacket”, “myself breathing”, “my shoes scrape the floor”; I FEEL “my hands on an iPhone”, “my back against a seat”, “sunglasses on my face”, “the heat of the sun”, and “my feet in my shoes”.

Similar to the first mindfulness practice, this practice involves observing and (objectively) describing. Try to be very descriptive as opposed to attaching judgment to what you are noticing. However, if you do find yourself judging, then just notice it and return to the activity. And same as before, if  you find yourself drifting off into thoughts of the past or future (or other things) while you are doing the activity, then again just notice where the mind goes and gently guide yourself back to finish the activity until completion. You may notice that some of your observations repeat as you go work through each phase of the exercise (5, 4, 3, 2, 1), and this is ok, but do try to be as original as possible as you go.

The last type of mindfulness exercise that I will mention in this slide set relates to how we eat; or in other words, learning to prepare and consume our food mindfully. Indeed, everything we do with food… all the way from harvesting it, to touching it, to slicing it, to heating it, to putting it on plates, to placing in our mouths, can be done mindfully. And isn’t this is an awesome thing to recognize, since we eat so regularly and mindfulness can also help us to settle ourselves and rewire the brain? Food mindfulness really demonstrates just how many possibilities there are for integrating mindfulness practices into our everyday lives.

There are in fact so many ways to practice mindfulness with food that I believe it is best to recommend that you do some online searches for “mindful eating” or “food mindfulness”. I have found many excellent and FREE food-related mindfulness examples and guides, and I’m very confident you can find them too. Look these up using your favorite search engine or video hosting site.

I will share one food harvesting practice that I use during the summer months in Canada, and that could easily be adapted to all kinds of similar circumstances. In my back yard there stands a Saskatoon Berry bush that produces thousands of berries each and every season. When it’s time to pick the berries, I turn the berry picking “chore” into a mindfulness activity. My strategy is simply to describe the actions involved in getting the berries from the tree to the bucket. And as simple as this may sound, it works great for bringing me into present moment awareness. The actions that I describe to myself as I am doing them are: “reaching”, “grasping”, “plucking”, “tossing”. If my mind wanders off, I notice where it went and then return to describing my actions. It is usually at least a 30-60 minute activity, and by the time I am done I have a bucket of berries ready for smoothies or pie!

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