Author: Mallory Tamillo, MSW, LSW, Adolescent Group Therapist, Compass Virtual
Hot chocolate, frost-covered windows, lit-up homes on every corner… Busy stores, long to-do lists, and the constant go, go, go of the holiday season. It is both a magical and stressful time for many. A study conducted by OnePoll found that 88% of Americans feel stressed while celebrating the holidays. Along with everyday life stressors, like working long hours, paying bills, and family or relationship conflict, the holiday season often brings additional stress to our already busy lives. Many of us may be experiencing the financial pressure of gift-giving, preparing for holiday gatherings, or facing overwhelming crowds of people out shopping. On top of all of that, some of us may be grieving the loss of a loved one, processing difficult life transitions or preparing for challenges in the year ahead.
How do we balance it all? How can we find calm in the chaos?
What is DBT?
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills can be useful in finding this balance. DBT is an evidence-based therapy modality developed by psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan and designed to help us cope with stress, regulate our emotions, improve our relationships with others and cultivate a mindful awareness of the present moment. DBT skills are centered on the idea that we are all doing the best we can, and we can all try to change our behavioral, emotional, thinking, and interpersonal patterns to improve the quality of our lives. DBT focuses on balancing two things at the same time: the need to change what we can control and the need to accept what we cannot. Dr. Linehan created 4 main categories of DBT Skills: Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Interpersonal Effectiveness, and Emotion Regulation.
DBT defines Mindfulness as “the act of consciously focusing the mind in the present moment, without judgment and without attachment to the moment”1. It is the practice of experiencing each new moment rather than ignoring the present by clinging to the past or grabbing for the future. Mindfulness allows us to experience our thoughts, physical sensations, emotions, and urges just as they are—without judgment—and to move through what we are experiencing without attaching to it. Mindfulness is a practice; it is something we build through time and repeated effort. To practice Mindfulness, we can use specific Mindfulness skills.
DBT Mindfulness Skills were designed to help us reduce stress, increase our ability to experience joy, improve our ability to focus our mind, and allow us to experience the present moment as it truly is. When we use Mindfulness Skills, we can tune into what we are experiencing in that very moment. It is very powerful to know what we are feeling as we are feeling it. This allows us to learn from our emotions and to listen to what they are telling us. Maybe an emotion of being overwhelmed is trying to tell us that we need to pause, check in with ourselves, and attend to our basic needs. Maybe an emotion of loneliness is a sign that we may benefit from reaching out to a loved one. An emotion of anger might be trying to tell us that we are also feeling hurt, frustrated, or stressed underneath our anger. Once we are aware of what we are feeling and why we are feeling it, we can choose what to let go of and what to focus our attention on. One DBT Mindfulness skill that can help us tune in and move forward in a balanced way is Wise Mind.
What is Wise Mind?
Wise Mind is a DBT Core Mindfulness Skill that we teach at Compass. The central principle of Wise Mind is beneficial for us all—it is a reminder that we each possess wisdom, an inner voice, that we can tap into and harness to guide us through challenging moments.
DBT explains that we each have 3 States of Mind: Reasonable Mind, Emotion Mind, and Wise Mind. Each mind is valid, normal, and useful in some situations and we all shift between the different states as we flow through our day-to-day lives.
Reasonable Mind is an extreme state of thinking in which we are hyper-focused on logic, facts, and reason itself. How we feel and what we value are not prioritized when operating fully in Reasonable Mind. This state of mind is focused on to-dos and rational courses of action. Reasonable Mind can be beneficial in situations like completing work, creating schedules, or managing true emergencies.
Emotion Mind is another extreme state of thinking, however, rather than being fueled by logic, we allow our emotion to drive the bus. When we are in Emotion Mind, we are zoomed in, all the way, by our moods, feelings, and urges. Logical thinking is difficult in this mindset; we may notice facts, however, intense emotions or urges may distort them. Emotion Mind can be beneficial in moments like processing intense experiences, celebrating successes, and choosing to be vulnerable as we build a relationship.
Wise Mind is the balanced state of mind, a state that makes space for and allows input from both Reasonable and Emotion Mind. We can picture Wise Mind as the middle of a Venn diagram or like a straight and balanced seesaw, with Emotion Mind on one end and Reasonable Mind on the other. Wise Mind is where we can connect with our intuition, and we can intentionally move forward in a balanced, values-guided, and mindful way. Wise Mind helps us choose next steps that are effective and meaningful for us, rather than choosing steps based on intense emotions or reason alone. Wise Mind is not always easy to access! Like all Mindfulness, it requires practice and willingness to tune into ourselves.
Practicing Wise Mind
Many of us may be wondering how to access our Wise Mind, how we can tap into this inner knowing and use it to guide us. Mindfulness techniques can help us to turn our attention inward and begin to notice and observe our experiences more fully. When we are mindful of the present moment, we can see reality as it is without any judgments or interpretations. If we are angry about a situation, for example, Mindfulness encourages us to get close to that emotion, to bring awareness to the thoughts, physical sensations, and urges associated with our anger without judging them.
We can practice accessing our Wise Mind using these Mindfulness-inspired tools:
Basic Needs Check-In:
- Meeting our basic needs is essential in creating the space and capacity to access Wise Mind.
- We are all more vulnerable to operating in Emotion Mind when we are not physically well, sleep-deprived, under the influence or misusing substances, off balance in terms of nutrition or hydration, when we are in very stressful environments (like many holiday-related situations!), or when we are feeling emotionally or physically unsafe.
- To help Wise Mind become more accessible, we can pause and check in around our basic needs. What do we need in this moment? What is one action we can take to meet this need? Maybe we need to change our environment, grab a nutritious snack, or even take a brief nap.
- Accessing Wise Mind is much easier when we are grounded in the moment and out of Fight Flight or Freeze mode. To help calm our brains and bodies, and create space for Wise Mind, we can practice Deep Breathing.
- Deep breathing requires us to breathe in deeply, filling up our abdomen and feeling it push out, and then breathe out fully, feeling our abdomen fall. It can be helpful to picture breathing in like you are smelling your favorite holiday scent and breathe out like you are blowing out the candles on a birthday cake.
- To connect Deep Breathing with Wise Mind, we can focus on Wise Mind as we inhale and exhale.
- Try breathing in deeply and saying “Wise,” silently to yourself, and then exhaling fully as you say “Mind.
- We can also use Deep Breathing to check and see if we are in Wise Mind.
- Inhale deeply and ask yourself, “Am I in Wise Mind?” or “Is this next step I'm planning to take coming from a place of Wise Mind?” Allow your mind to generate the answer and repeat as needed, being gentle with yourself and focusing on observing rather than judging.
- Guided Meditations are visual or audio prompts to support us in practicing Mindfulness, while keeping our bodies in a similar state for a while (sitting, standing, lying, walking, etc.).
- Many versions of Guided Meditation exist from YouTube videos, books, podcasts, and more.
- One easy to access Guided Meditation is "Leaves on a Stream."
- This specific practice involves visualizing a stream. To practice, you can ground your body, tune into your breathing, and focus on your thoughts. When a thought enters your mind, gently notice it and visualize yourself placing it on a leaf, allowing it to flow down the stream. Doing this helps us create space from our thoughts. We become the observer, acknowledging the thought, and allowing ourselves to let it go.
- Creating art is a great way to connect with Wise Mind and practice being fully present in the moment. Consider painting, drawing, or coloring what each “mind” looks like for you.
- Writing about our day-to-day, either in the present moment or reflecting later, helps bring awareness to our thoughts, emotions, and experiences. This can also help us recognize what we can and cannot control, what state of mind we are in, and what is meaningful to move toward.
- Try journaling with a focus on noticing which state of mind you are in, how Wise Mind might benefit you, and what you may need to do in the moment to access Wise Mind.
The more we practice these techniques, the more we can activate the Wise Mind already within us to effectively cope with situations in our day-to-day lives.
Managing Holiday Stress with Wise Mind
Wise Mind is particularly useful in stressful situations, and we know the end of the year can bring on many of these!
We may be overwhelmed with constant plans, looming deadlines, and overbooked weekends. We may be in Reasonable Mind, planning, organizing, and thinking we are expected to say yes to all the events we have been invited to. When we overbook ourselves, we may not be considering how we truly feel and what we truly want and need. The next time an ask arises, try pausing to reflect on: “Is this something I actually want to do, or do I just feel obligated?” and “What does Wise Mind say?” Creating this pause allows us to notice when we are starting to feel burned out and may need some alone-time to rejuvenate. We can validate both our logic and feelings with a Wise Mind statement, such as, “I can say yes to some of these events that I want to attend, AND I need to say no to some of them to prioritize my wellbeing.”
We may be in Emotion Mind when dealing with the stress of gift-giving. We might feel pressured, leading to impulsive spending on gifts or prioritizing the object over the intention. In this case, logic might get thrown out the window, and we could end up spending outside our budget. This is where it is important to bring in our Wise Mind and find a balance between logic and emotion. We can ask ourselves “Am I financially comfortable with this, or is my reason clouded by the pressure I feel to do this?” and “Wise Mind, what is my most balanced next step?” We can validate our logic and emotions with a Wise Mind statement like “I want to buy gifts for my loved ones, AND I can do that comfortably by staying within my budget and focusing on my intention more than gift itself.”
Wise Mind can also be useful when navigating holiday conflict, end of the year interpersonal stress, or challenging interactions with loved ones. In the moment, when someone says something we experience as hurtful or triggering, we might automatically enter one of the two extreme mindsets. We might notice Emotion Mind jumping in to tell us to lash out, walk away or leave, or shut down and detach from the moment. We may sense Reasonable Mind telling us to challenge their facts, pivot to our next task, or ignore the comment. Mindfulness can help us to observe our thoughts, notice what has come up in our body, and name our feelings, taking all of this in and processing it before reacting. Through Mindfulness, we can access our Wise Mind and respond in the most effective way. Perhaps we share a Wise Mind statement like, “I appreciate your care in bringing this up to me AND how you shared that was hurtful.”
Just like our Emotion and Reasonable Minds can kick in during tough moments, our body may also shift into fight, flight, or freeze mode. This happens when our nervous system perceives a potential threat and is trying to protect us. In these moments, we may feel our heart beating faster, our face flushing, or our thoughts racing; these are all ways our body is processing stress. Reactions like these can be unsettling and uncomfortable and they are normal! We can observe these reactions and choose to tap into our Wise Mind. Maybe we ask ourselves “What emotion am I experiencing in this moment and what is it trying to tell me?” Maybe we pause and take 4 deep breaths saying “Wise” as we inhale and “Mind” as we exhale. Maybe we pause to ask ourselves “What would Wise Mind do next?” or tune into our basic needs and excuse ourselves to grab a glass of water before responding. We can then use Wise Mind to find a balance between the two extremes of Emotion and Reasonable Mind. Remember, we have wisdom inside to guide us—Wise Mind can help us tap into it and gain confidence in trusting it.
Carrying Wise Mind with Us
Mindfulness skills like Wise Mind can benefit each of us in many ways, especially during these hectic end of year times. We cannot control it all, though when we choose to try Mindfulness, we are working to improve our awareness and focus, building our ability to feel more in control of our attention and reactions. In turn, we can create meaningful holiday moments and move through our experiences more peacefully.
References & Citations:
- Linehan, M. M. (2015) DBT Skills Training Manual (2nded.) The Guilford Press.
- Linehan, M. M. (2015) DBT Skills Training: Handouts and Worksheets (2nded. The Guilford Press.
- Psychwire. (2019, October 14). Dr. Marsha Linehan Teaches Wise Mind [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_BmPxd0Eiw
Read more from our Chaos to Calm winter series:
- Why do Holidays Trigger Substance Use? | A Clinician’s Guide for Navigating Pressure, Nostalgia, and Complicated Relationships
- Three Ways to Identify Emotions to Help Navigate Your Feelings | A Clinician's Guide for Improved Mental Health
- How to Make Holiday Guests Feel Safe, Heard, and Seen | A Clinician's Guide to Practicing Affirmative and Inclusive Language