People who are just beginning Dialectical Behavioral Therapy usually don’t have an appreciation for just how important the practice of mindfulness is in the treatment. Mindfulness is actually a building block of DBT. Without it, the rest of the treatment is impossible.
Mindfulness influences the mind on very fundamental and profound levels. It is tied to BPD’s very biology. When you practice mindfulness, you rewire the brain’s amygdala or what is also known as the prefrontal cortex. Research has shown that practicing mindfulness changes the way the prefrontal cortex fires and interacts with the rest of the brain as a whole. This is why mindfulness has such an effect on the BPD brain.
How does mindfulness work to help the BPD brain?
It works by causing the brain to pay attention in a way that activates the prefrontal cortex. This is similar to the way other parts of your body react to other kinds of stimuli — the fight or flight reflex. It keeps the brain focused in ways that it has not been in the past and strengthens what are known as attentional circuits found in the prefrontal cortex.
Researchers say that there is little evidence that practicing mindfulness on its own will have much influence over BPD and its symptoms but when combined with the other components of DBT it is a powerful tool.
Mindfulness has been shown to reduce the symptoms of physical illness in people who suffer from BPD as well as reduce the amount of pain they feel following an injury. This consequently reduces the amount of pain medication which may be required to treat an injury and its relative recovery time. This should not be discounted as merely a “placebo effect”.
When the brain’s prefrontal cortex is activated a painkilling opiate called β-endorphin is produced which is what causes the reduction in pain caused by an injury.
There are many other ways that mindfulness is helpful
Practicing mindfulness has also been shown to help people who have difficulty paying attention when they are experiencing high levels of stress. It achieves this by reducing the amount of cortisol in the body.
People who suffer from BPD also tend to have other illnesses which are referred to as “comorbid” conditions. These can include things like anxiety disorders or even substance abuse disorders. Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness is also helpful in these instances. As well, practicing mindfulness has been shown to increase levels of a chemical called serotonin which is also sometimes called the happiness hormone. People who have BPD are often deficient in serotonin. Having a low serotonin level is also linked to an increased risk for suicide.
When people practice mindfulness, they usually report a decrease in their stress levels and an improvement in their overall feeling of well-being in general in a reasonably short period of time. Mindfulness comes into play in the various DBT skills such as STOPP, Opposite Action and radical acceptance because it calls upon the person to stop what they are doing and pay attention to what is happening and make a choice based on what is known as wise mind. Learning how to do this is what enables the person with BPD to stop acting on the impulse of their emotions. This is the foundation of emotional regulation. a