DBT Mindfulness Exercises For Food Freedom

This blog article is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical advice.

Are you struggling to improve your relationship with food, but don’t know where to begin?

I’ve been there! It can feel overwhelming when you’re first starting.

Until I gave DBT mindfulness exercises a try, I never knew how incredibly helpful they’d be. I credit mindfulness with helping me totally revamp my body image and find food freedom.

In this article, you’ll learn what mindfulness is and why it’s is such a powerful tool to use to improve your relationship with food. I’ll introduce you to five easy, quick mindfulness exercises you can try immediately, even if you’ve never meditated before.

Let’s get started.

What Is Mindfulness?

“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” https://www.mindful.org/what-is-mindfulness/

Mindfulness encompasses a number of practices, meditation is only one of them. In other words, you don’t have to be seated on a puffy cushion in a silent room to practice mindfulness.

You can practice while you move or while seated, stay inside or practice in nature, surround yourself in silence or practice with sound or music around you. The choice is yours. The exercises I selected for this article are a mix of all of these styles so you can find what works for you.

Practicing DBT mindfulness exercises helps us hone the skills of being in the moment without letting the emotions or thoughts overwhelm us. This can be key to improving your relationship with food or in eating disorder recovery when learning to cope with difficult emotions without using food-related compensatory behaviors.

One thing to keep in mind: it is a practice that takes time to develop, but is worth the effort.

What Can DBT Mindfulness Exercises Do For You?

Through mindfulness exercises, you can: 

  • observe body sensations, which help you learn to practice Intuitive Eating (i.e. hunger, fullness, emotions)
  • examine thoughts and emotions, which allow you to separate the two – this skill is key in improving your relationship with food 
  • sharpen your non-judgemental observation skills which help you improve your self-esteem and body image
  • more clearly see your own humanity and identify with the humanity and suffering in others – key in building self-compassion

Mindfulness improves focus and concentration, calms the nervous system to manage distress, anxiety and depression, reduces episodes of binge eating, heightens awareness of sensations in the body, and helps manage chronic pain. Having these skills at your fingertips indeed increases your own personal internal power and expands your capacity to manage strong emotions.

What If I Can’t Focus During Meditation?

I was turned on to mindfulness when I went back to school to become a Registered Dietitian. Learning to meditate took time.

I kept feeling like I was doing it wrong. I couldn’t focus on my breath (or whatever we were focusing on that day) for very long without other thoughts distracting me – what I was making for dinner, upcoming deadlines, etc.

This is totally normal, especially at first. There is no “wrong” way to meditate.

So, thankfully my mindfulness teacher started small. We began with short meditations of just a few minutes to begin training our minds to focus and observe. Concentration comes with time.

And when that became easier, we would meditate for longer periods of time. My mind wandered every time, and I learned that was okay – a part of it all, really – and each time I realized my mind wandered, I brought my mind back to the focus. 

So, don’t worry if you can’t focus when you first try DBT mindfulness exercises. Stick with short meditations at first and build your focus over time. Remember, learning new skills takes time and be patient with yourself.

What are DBT Mindfulness Skills?

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), using mindfulness is a key component of treatment. I most commonly use a DBT-informed approach when working with clients with binge eating disorder or those who feel addicted to food.

But you don’t have to be engaging in DBT to benefit from mindfulness. Research shows that building these skills helps strengthen a person’s ability to handle distress and difficult emotions without using disordered or destructive behaviors. 

Specifically, DBT mindfulness exercises focus on “what” skills and “how” skills:

“What” Skills:

  • Focus more fully on the present moment
  • Identify and focus on thoughts, emotions and body sensations
  • Focus on your moment-to-moment stream of awareness
  • Separate your thoughts from your emotions and physical sensations

“How” skills are more advanced than “what” skills and include:

  • Learning to accept yourself and your experiences without criticism and judgment
  • Learning to access the “Wise Mind”
  • Practicing effectiveness
  • Overcoming obstacles in the practice of mindfulness

DBT Mindfulness Exercises

The exercises I’ve highlighted below focus on several of the “what” skills. These skills are foundational for practicing mindfulness and help lay the groundwork for more advanced “how” dbt skills.

The exercises are short, one to five minutes in length, and require no special equipment. They are designed with beginners in mind. The final exercise focuses on a “how” skill: non-judgemental observation. It is a bit more challenging, so try the other mindfulness exercises first.

1 Minute DBT Mindfulness Exercises

To start building the skills of mindfulness, you don’t need to spend much time at all. These one minute exercises to begin improving your focus and honing your awareness. In just one minute, each exercise below focuses on a distinct skill to build concentration, non-judgemental observation, and awareness skills. 

Heart Rate Focus Exercise

I learned this mindfulness practice at a conference with Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, the authors of Intuitive Eating. The exercise helps connect you with your body’s physical sensations, using the awareness of your pulse as an entry point to sensing your body’s internal messages. 

At first you’ll use your fingers on your skin at a pulse point to feel your heartbeat, then you’ll try to sense your heartbeat without the help of your hand as a sensor. This exercise helps you perceive physical sensations like hunger, fullness, and the physical manifestation of emotions. The ability to perceive these sensations is called interoceptive awareness, and building this skill allows you to better respond to your body’s needs.

This image shows a woman taking her pulse on her wrist and on her neck.

The Practice: Part A: In this exercise, you will find your pulse and pay attention to it for 60 seconds. Using your index and middle finger, find your pulse on the inside of your wrist, about an inch below the base of your palm on the thumb side of your wrist, or, alternatively, you can find a pulse at your carotid artery on your neck. Once you feel your heartbeat with your fingers, pay attention to the beats for one minute, counting them as you go. Using a timer is recommended for this exercise.

Part B: Next, settle yourself with a few deep breaths. Then, see if you can perceive your heartbeat inside your body without using your hand as a sensor. Once you have “found” your pulse, focus on it for one minute, using your timer. Concentrate on your pulse and count the beats. It may take a few attempts to perceive your heartbeat without your hand as a sensor, so have compassion for yourself if you are not able to do this part on the first or second (or third) try. As you get better at noticing your heartbeat, you may find that the number of beats from part A is close to the number you count in part B.

Mindful Breathing

The Practice: In a comfortable seated position, take a deep inhale while you lengthen your spine and soften the shoulders away from the ears. As you exhale, settle your body into a comfortable position. Breath naturally and become aware of the feeling of your natural breath flowing in and out of your body. Experience the full length of your breath in, then your breath out. Try to sense your breath from the inside of your body as you breathe in and out, noticing the motion of the breath. If you notice your attention shift away from your breath, just let the sensations of your breath draw your attention back to it. Continue sensing your breath from the inside with a gentle, kind curiosity, as if your breath is worthy of your full attention.

5 Minute DBT Mindfulness Exercises

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

I recommend finding a comfortable place where you won’t be interrupted for five minutes for this exercise. You can do this seated or lying down in a place where your body feels fully supported, like on a soft exercise mat.

The Practice: Begin by closing your eyes and taking a few relaxing breaths. Imagine your body and muscles as very relaxed. Moving from head to toe, tighten each muscle group in turn for 5 to 10 seconds and then release them fully before moving to the next group. Start at the top of the list and go to the bottom, relaxing fully after each isometric contraction.

  • Face, squeeze the eyes and mouth shut tightly; release
  • Face, open jaw and eyes wide, lift eyebrows; release
  • Neck, nod forward with chin toward the chest; release
  • Shoulders, squeeze shoulders towards ears; release
  • Shoulders, squeeze shoulder blades towards each other; release
  • Biceps, draw fists toward shoulders, bending at elbows; release
  • Triceps, straighten arms, squeezing at the back of the arm; release
  • Hands, make tight fists; release
  • Abdomen, engage stomach muscles; release
  • Buttocks, squeeze your buttocks; release
  • Thighs, extend legs and squeeze thigh muscles; release
  • Calves, pull toes towards knees; release
  • Feet, point toes downwards; release

Finish with several deep, relaxing breaths and move slowly as you return to a seated position, if lying down.

Movement Meditation

This moving meditation is especially helpful for those of us who have difficulty sitting still for too long. It involves walking outside and observing what you see. Sounds simple, right? 

Well, here’s the mindful part that will take a bit of practice. Normally, our brains label everything we see with the words we learned as we grew up – tree, car, house, etc. In this exercise, you’ll observe what you see without labeling it as you always have. Instead, you will use the word “see” to label what you see. By removing the labels and swapping out a single word for these labels, this practice helps hone our skills of non-judgemental observation. 

DBT mindfulness exercise: moving meditation is especially helpful for those of us who have difficulty sitting still for too long,

The Practice: Take a slow-paced walk outside and look at the things around you. It’s helpful to approach this exercise like a tiny baby who doesn’t yet know the names of what she is seeing, like “clouds” or “sidewalk.” On your walk, look around. Observe the outside world like a curious baby.

Instead of allowing your brain to label the things you see on your walk, you will label the object by saying the word “see” in your mind. It will take time to turn off the urge to name all the objects you see. Therein lies the essence of the practice – removing our learned labels and approaching what we see with non-judgemental curiosity. 

More Mindfulness Recommendations

These practices are often a bit easier at first if you have a guide. I highly recommend checking out some short recorded meditations to continue exploring different mindfulness practices. UVM Mindfulness on SoundCloud.com has short-form meditations and mindfulness lessons that are my go-to for quick meditations

The apps Headspace and Calm also are terrific resources for expanding your mindfulness options. And for self-compassion work specifically, I highly recommend Dr. Kristen Neff’s guided meditations at her website, www.self-compassion.org. Her meditations are helpful if you are learning to be kinder to yourself in relation to your body image.

Give one or all of these a try, and watch your practice build.

Applying Mindfulness If You Struggle With Food 

As you practice mindfulness and become more attuned to your body’s signals, emotions, and needs, you will be better equipped to respond to your needs. You’ll come to know the difference between the different body sensations that emotions provoke.

Identifying sadness, for example, can help you choose a response that will lift your spirits, like time with a loved one or watching a comedy.

You’ll also come to distinguish emotional sensations in the body from hunger sensations. This can be key to improving your relationship with food. Be patient and kind with yourself as you explore and identify these sensations. It may take time to become attuned to and respond to your body’s needs.

Learning to cope with difficult emotions without using food-related compensatory behaviors can be quite freeing. But it takes time.

Remember, this is a practice, and like any practice, you get better as time goes on. You may not notice changes immediately after one mindfulness exercise (or you may!), but it is worth the effort to explore these exercises if you’ve been struggling with food.

If you need support implementing mindfulness in your everyday life as it relates to your relationship with food, please contact me.

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