Mindfulness & Self-Destruction

Originally posted as “Mindfulness in the Treatment of Self-Destructive Behaviour” at Psychology Today.

If you struggle with self-destructive or dysregulated behavior, you have probably tried to stop engaging in this behavior many times.

However, despite your best efforts, you have likely felt compelled to start engaging in the behavior again. Many times.

Dysregulated behaviors include behaviors that provide relief or pleasure in the short-term – but often cause negative consequences over time. In my last Psychology Today post, I explained why some people find certain dysregulated behaviors almost impossible to resist. (You can read that post by clicking here.) In a nutshell:

You may have learned to use dysregulated behavior to try to “turn off” painful or uncomfortable emotions.

However, trying to “turn off” emotions is like putting an airtight lid on a pot of boiling water. The steam and pressure (the emotions) will continue to build – until you may feel you are constantly under pressure. Eventually, the pot will explode, which is when emotions feel especially unbearable. Consequently, you may feel compelled to try to “turn off” the heightened emotions by engaging in the dysregulated behavior again.

And the spiral will continue.

However, methods exist that can improve your chances of breaking free of this spiral. One of those methods is mindfulness practice.

Now, if you’re rolling your eyes, you’re not alone. Mindfulness has been over-hyped, and its effects have sometimes been misunderstood or exaggerated. But I urge you to work to keep an open mind.

First, let’s define what mindfulness is and is not.

  • Mindfulness involves the ability to experience and tolerate the present moment – including emotions, thoughts, sensations, and (potentially) cravings/urges – without feeling compelled to immediately “turn off” the experience or act on the cravings/urges.
  • Mindfulness is not: an altered state, hypnosis, pure bliss, a cure-all, a relaxation exercise*, or the absence of all negative emotions like some sort of Zen zombie.
  • (*Note: People often do find mindfulness practice relaxing, which is fine. However, the purpose is not to try to relax. The purpose is to be aware of and attentive to the moment – whether that experience is relaxing or not.)

Mindfulness, especially when learned and practiced with a mental-health professional, can disrupt the spiral of dysregulation in several ways. This post will be the first in a series explaining how mindfulness can help you move beyond dysregulated behavior. Explanations will be oversimplified due to space constraints, but they will provide a general idea.

Today’s post will focus on the metaphor of the boiling pot.

  • When you put a lid tightly on a boiling pot, the steam and pressure will eventually build. (In other words, when you try not to feel negative emotions, the emotions will eventually build.)
  •  Over time, you may feel like you are almost always under pressure.
  • In contrast, mindfulness involves purposely experiencing and tolerating current emotions and (if applicable) cravings.
  • Therefore, mindfulness practice is like poking a hole in the lid of the metaphorical pot and releasing some of the steam – releasing some of the pressure of the emotions and cravings.
  • Consequently, mindfulness practice can lower the almost-constant feeling of pressure.
  • As the pressure decreases, the emotions and cravings eventually feel less intense and overwhelming.
  • As a result, the emotions and cravings become easier to tolerate and regulate, and the cravings become easier to resist.

I once knew a man who desperately wanted to stop smoking. (We’ll call him “Rob.”) Every time Rob stopped smoking, he experienced intense anxiety, as well as strong cravings when he felt tired or bored. Eventually, the anxiety and cravings felt unbearable, and he ultimately started smoking again.

However, when Rob participated in a treatment that incorporated mindfulness, his reactions changed. He still felt negative emotions. (Negative emotions are part of being human.) He even felt some cravings. However, when he had experienced cravings prior to treatment, his cravings were all he could think about, and he eventually felt compelled to act on the cravings. After the treatment, he reported that the emotions and cravings no longer felt unbearable or overwhelming. He was able to experience his emotions and cravings without feeling controlled by them. Thus, he was able to stop smoking and take steps to move on with his life.

Of note is that Rob did not find the process to be easy. Nor do most people. The process of overcoming entrenched dysregulated behavior can be one of the most difficult challenges a person can undertake. However, mindfulness practice can help increase the odds of success.

The take-home message: Mindfulness, especially when learned and practiced with a metal-health professional, can:

  • decrease chronic feelings of pressure, and
  • help emotions and cravings feel more tolerable.

Upcoming posts will discuss additional methods through which mindfulness can address dysregulated behavior. Until then, remember that struggling with dysregulated behavior:

  • does mean you have become caught in a vicious spiral,
  • does mean that some tools, treatments, and types of support may help more than others,
  • does not mean you can’t eventually move beyond the behavior to a life that feels more fulfilling.