Compassion in the Slump

I’ve started four different posts this month and haven’t finished/published any of them. I stopped exercising for a good while because of the persistent ache in my heels that I’ve now realized is plantar fasciitis. And I had a difficult and emotional weekend, dealing with a controversial issue in my house of faith that was disorienting and triggering. On my Depth Day last Saturday, I just didn’t feel like writing and sensed a slump of sorts overtaking my mid-March. Makes sense. We’re at the end of a long winter, with weather that can’t make up its mind, and well past the excitement and fervor of a new year. Are you feeling the same? How do you react when faced with less-than-favorable circumstances? I’ve found self-compassion is key.

During the most difficult period of my life, as I navigated uncharted waters to remove myself from a dangerous and distressing situation, I participated in Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy under the skillful guidance of my therapist, Chuck Nuttall. Though originally developed for people with Borderline Personality Disorder, Chuck felt the DBT program would be incredibly helpful for someone going through a painful and complicated divorce. The core ideas and practices learned were so dang helpful that I wish they were required courses in every nation’s high school curriculum. Sometimes I don’t even realize that I am employing DBT skills when I use them now, but every time I do, they help.

The main idea of Dialectical Behavior Therapy is to attain mindfulness. A dialectic refers to the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions. Practicing mindfulness can be a form of meditation, or it can be simply balancing your logical (reasonable mind) thoughts with your impulsive (emotion mind) thoughts to form a middle-ground “wise mind.” You learn how to identify what emotion or combination of emotions you’re feeling and discern whether they are justified or not. If unjustified, you do an opposite-to-emotion reaction (ie: when you are overly angry or impatient with your child,  challenge yourself to react with love instead); and when justified, you problem-solve the triggering event (ie: angry that someone has violated your boundaries, you create a cope-ahead plan for when you deal with that person again). DBT is full of practicing how to communicate more effectively with others, and mapping out and utilizing distress tolerance skills for the times that you feel pushed to the edge by circumstances beyond your control. I know I’m giving a lot of new information here; if you want to study DBT further, I highly recommend it.

Whether unease comes about by a natural slump, abuse, or frustrating situations you can’t control, it helps to have a few tricks in your pocket to get you to the other side. Here are some of my favorites:

TIP: Reduce intense emotions by changing Temperature (take a hot bath; or thrust your face into a bowl of ice-cold water for 10 seconds, which literally resets your brain–called ice diving); participate in Intense exercise; or do a Progressive muscle relaxation (tighten and then relax each of your muscles, one at a time, from head to toe).

SELF SOOTHE the Five Senses: 

  • Vision: Sit by a fire or look at a candle’s flame, stargaze, go on a hike or to an art museum, rearrange a bookshelf, look through old pictures or mementos, etc.
  • Hearing: Listen to your favorite soothing or invigorating music, listen to the sounds of nature (the Calm app works as a great substitute), practice your instrument or sing, attend a concert, etc.
  • Touch: Put clean sheets on the bed, take a bubble bath, get a massage, hug someone, sink into a really comfortable chair, put on lotion, etc.
  • Taste: Make a soothing warm drink, enjoy your favorite meal, eat strong flavors like Hot Tamales or wasabi and fresh ginger with sushi (my favorites), sample flavors in an ice cream store, really taste what you’re eating, etc.
  • Smell: Inhale anything lemon (essential oil, soap, lotion, cut up the fruit and scrub your countertops), sample scents at a lotion store, put on perfume, light a scented candle, bake cookies or bread, smell fresh flowers, etc.

Distracting Skills with ACCEPTS:

  • Activities: Call or visit a friend, have a game night, deep clean or organize, go walking, work in the yard or garden, etc.
  • Contributing: Do volunteer work, go through your house and find items to donate, surprise visit someone who is lonely, write a note to a loved one, like and comment on others’ posts on social media, etc.
  • Comparisons: Read books of those who have overcome great trials, compare yourself to those less fortunate than you, etc.
  • Opposite Emotions: Push yourself to feel a different emotion than the one you’re currently drenched in. Watch a sappy or suspenseful movie, listen to a comedian, dance to high-energy songs.
  • Pushing Away: Push the situation away by leaving it for awhile. Get off the thread of argument on Facebook. Imagine boxing up the pain of a certain experience and putting it on the shelf for a time.
  • Other Thoughts: Work on a puzzle, sudoku, crossword puzzle, read a book/ magazine/articles, count colors in a painting.
  • Intense Other Sensations: Hold a piece of ice in your hand, squeeze a rubber ball, take a hot shower, pop a rubber band against your wrist.

Another skill is curiously satisfying. Like the Mona Lisa, you Half Smile. The simple act of turning up the corners of your mouth, while under duress, automatically calms and lifts your spirits. You can also Observe Your Breath, or breathe in for a certain number of seconds, hold the breath, and then breathe out.

The final set of ideas from DBT I’ll share today are the IMPROVE the Moment skills:

  • Imagery: Imagine a very beautiful, relaxing scene. Go there in your mind when a situation gets tough. Imagine being a non-stick pan, with intake coming in and slipping right back out.
  • Meaning: Find or create some purpose, meaning, or value in the pain. Remember, listen to, or read about spiritual values. Make lemonade out of lemons.
  • Prayer: Open your heart to a supreme being, greater wisdom, God, or your own wise mind. Turn things over to them. Ask for strength to bear the pain in this moment.
  • Relaxation: Listen to a relaxation meditation, massage your neck and scalp or calves and feet.
  • One Thing in the Moment: Focus your entire attention on just what you are doing right now. Participate in non-mental tasks and focus on physical sensations that accompany them (walking, washing the dishes, cleaning).
  • Take a Brief Vacation: Get in bed and pull the covers over your head for 20 minutes. Rent a motel room near a scenic view for a day or two; act like a tourist in your own town. Take a blanket to the park and sit on it for a whole afternoon, with chocolates and a good book. Unplug your phone for a day. Go on a short road trip to a state or national park or a restaurant destination.
  • Encouragement: Cheerlead yourself. Talk to someone who is always encouraging.

I found myself pushing away from the stress of my weekend’s conflict by spending the afternoon in a cozy chair finishing a book. I participated in Other Activities by working on an updated cookbook, and made three recipes from it that filled my home with a delicious aroma and fed me all weekend. I organized my garage and took a load of donations to the nearest charity. I stopped by a wiser woman’s house and was invited in for a wonderful talk by the fireplace, in which I found meaning and encouragement for the distress I had been feeling. And I started a new project of uploading all of my pictures and videos to Google Photos, watching old videos of how my kids talked as babies and toddlers. It was incredibly soothing, flooded me with love, and reminded me of all that is good in my life. I hope the things I’ve shared will be helpful for creating an arsenal of ideas for when the going gets tough in your own life.

I’ve personalized the lists, but ideas shared are from “Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder” by Marsha Linehan and Chuck Nuttall’s “DBT Skills Training” manual.

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