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How DBT and Mindfulness Can Help You Handle COVID-19

DBT + mindfulness = reality check

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The first article I wrote for Thrive Global one year ago discussed the role of mindfulness, yoga, and meditation in addiction treatment. I talked about how treatment for addiction changes as new evidence emerges about what works, what doesn’t, and perhaps most importantly, about what we can prove works and what we can prove doesn’t. The evidence is now crystal clear that complementary approaches to treatment – the yoga, the mindfulness, and the meditation-type approaches – are effective elements of recovery programs that also include techniques like psychotherapy, community support, lifestyle changes, and medication.

Evidence shows mindfulness activities help people in recovery:

  • Reduce stress
  • Improve overall health
  • Manage anxiety
  • Boost self-esteem
  • Improve well-being

The most effective use of mindfulness – according to the data – is when it’s used in conjunction with other therapies. Mindfulness works as part of the big picture in recovery. Which is interesting, because while mindfulness teaches you to focus on yourself and things happening in the moment, it also enables you to see an even bigger picture: it helps you see the world outside yourself as it is.

Right now – in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic – that’s an essential skill. It’s a skill people in recovery learn that can help us all. But developing this skill doesn’t happen by accident. In addiction treatment and recovery, it happens when you combine mindfulness with another therapeutic approach that evidence shows works for people in recovery: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a.k.a. DBT.

I’ll explain.

DBT + Mindfulness = Reality Check

I know, I know.

I just threw some therapy jargon at you – DBT – without much explanation. Don’t worry. I can break it down quickly, because it’s simple.

Dialectical means two things: the discussion of ideas and the concept that two opposite ideas can be true at the same time. Behavioral therapy is therapy designed to change your actions and behaviors from those you don’t want in your life to those you do. Therefore, DBT – Dialectical Behavior Therapy – helps people examine opposing forces, thoughts, or emotions in their lives, resolve them, and apply those resolutions, conclusions, or new points of view to their actions in the real world.

It helps them see contradictions and change their behavior, which are two critical skills for people in recovery.

Now let’s talk about how mindfulness helps people in recovery – and I’m sure you’ll start to see the parallels between DBT and mindfulness before I connect the dots for you. What I want you to think about while you read, though, is what this all has to do with the coronavirus pandemic, and how these recovery skills can help anyone during this strange and unprecedented time.

Here’s how basic mindfulness meditation, or any basic mindfulness activity, helps people in recovery. Mindfulness teaches people to:

  1. See things in their life as they are, not as they wish them to be.
  2. Determine whether their personal goals and values match their behavior – based on an objective evaluation of things as they are, not as they wish them to be.
  3. Make psychological, emotional, and behavioral adjustments, i.e. changes in what they do, based on what they learn from (1) and (2).

People in recovery apply these lessons directly to their daily lives in order to stay sober, build a life based on affirmative choices, and stay true to themselves – especially when things get confusing, difficult, and overwhelming. These lessons become more powerful when they’re backed by DBT with a trained therapist – like me – to ensure that the insight gained from mindfulness experiences do indeed coincide with the world as it is, as opposed to the world as we want or wish it to be.

That’s why the combination of DBT and mindfulness is a powerful reality check. It enables therapist and patient (read person in recovery) to align behavior and value with the default condition of their environment. They do it with clear eyes, an open attitude, and a mind for acceptance and change.

Have you figured out how all this can help you – in recovery or not – manage yourself during the coronavirus pandemic?

If yes, kudos to you. If not, then read on.

Behavior, Values, and Goals

By anyone’s standard, we’re in a pickle.

The nation went into full lockdown mode back in March and April. It was a huge hit for almost everyone at almost every level: personal, professional, financial, you name it. Then we started reopening, based on objective criteria released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). I’m not here to question what states did or whether they followed the CDC rules: use your personal resources and observational skills to judge that for yourself.

Now we see a spike in infections across the nation. And if that’s frustrating to you – I get it. If the idea of going back into lockdown sounds awful – I get it. If you were about to schedule your first hair appointment since March – I get it. Personally, I feel like a Wookiee, with all this uncut, unstyled, and unruly hair.

But I digress.

The long and short of where we stand with COVID-19 is that in many states, we’re looking at a reset. We may need to go back to shelter-in-place and severely restricted business operations. It’s looking like – in many places – we took one step forward and two steps back.

Bummer to be us.

Unless you’re in recovery and you’ve practiced mindfulness and learned your DBT stress tolerance skills. Then you know the situation is less than desirable and you get to decide what to do about it.  

People in recovery get to use their recovery skills to analyze and respond to this situation.

Here’s how that works:

  1. We use the objective analysis element of DBT + Mindfulness to see the COVID-19 data for what it is, not for what we wish it to be. Numbers are numbers. Our personal preferences will never make 2 + 2 = 5. Our personal opinions will never change data reported by expert scientists. We make our decisions based on evidence – that’s it. We don’t fill in the blanks with our wants, because facts are facts.
  2. We match our goals and values to our behavior, and vice-versa. We want to stay illness free, and we want the same for our family members, friends, peers, and work colleagues. We want that for everyone. We value our health and theirs. Our goal is health and wellness. Therefore, we use our skills to analyze our behavior and ensure it matches these goals.
  3. We adjust our behavior if it doesn’t match our values and goals. That’s how we make progress in recovery. And that’s how you can make progress handling the coronavirus pandemic – if you’re having trouble. You analyze the data, check in with your values and goals, and adjust your behavior accordingly.

I’m not going to tell you what to do, think, or say about the coronavirus pandemic. What I will do is encourage you to apply these skills that people learn in recovery to your current behavior.

Does your behavior match your values and goals?

Only you can answer that.

Recovery is Not a Straight Line – Maybe This Pandemic Isn’t Either

Very few efforts to recover from alcohol or substance use disorders follow a perfectly linear trajectory. That doesn’t mean most people relapse at some point – but many do. What it means is that while you make progress in some areas – two steps forward – you may have problems in other areas – one step back. But reread that: it’s still one step forward. And with regards to relapse, people in recovery know that as hard as relapse is, it’s not the end of the world. What happens when you relapse is you reach out for help, recalibrate, and restart. All the good work you did before is valid and contributes to your forward progress. A relapse gives you more data, which you use to inform your new approach to recovery.

You see it now?

We may indeed need to do a full-on coronavirus reset in many places – based on the latest available evidence and data.

If you have a hard time wrapping your mind around the idea of another month of quarantine – then you can use the recovery formula in this article:

DBT + Mindfulness = Reality check

In this case, the reality check is that we may need to do a COVID-19 reset. People in recovery know all about resets. If they haven’t had to do one, they know recovery peers who have. And they know a key fact: a reset is not the end of the world. A reset is another chance to get it right.

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