Reduce Negative Emotions by Using the Mindfulness Describe Skill

Human beings have very sophisticated minds. We can make sense of things in a way no other animal on the planet can. Drawing connections between abstract ideas is one of the abilities that allows us to engage in life in a way that is rich with meaning. The drawback to this is that we often make cognitive connections that can crowd our experience with a little too much meaning, ultimately complicating our lives in ways that leave us feeling stressed, frustrated, and depressed. The mindfulness skill describe (Linehan, 1993), is a tool we can use to cut through the noise in our minds, and contact the present moment in a simple, engaged way. 

Describe, as with other mindfulness skills, is a technique you can use to contact the present moment. We are usually in the habit of thinking about the present rather than experiencing it. As a result, we often just end up interacting with all of our thoughts, assumptions, and negative judgments rather than connecting to what is going on around us. This way of going through our day, day after day, complicates our lives. Being present without the filter of all of our thoughts, allows us to simply be.

The describe skill is aptly named. It is putting words to our experience in an objective, non-judgmental way. Rather than falling into the habit of rehashing the past, rehearsing the future, or evaluating the present, we simply identify what we notice in just this moment. One way of going about this is by noticing what is happening around you, in judgment-free language. “Blue sky. Fluorescent light. Hum of the air conditioner.” Notice any judgments as they come up, and describe those too. “I’m noticing a judgment about being at work.” Then replace the judgment with an objective description “Sitting in my chair.”

You can also use describe as a way of being mindful of your present experience. One way to do this is by checking in with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (Barlow, 2010). “I notice I’m having thoughts about the future. I notice a feeling of anxiety in my chest. Taking one step, walking on the pavement.” Describing one’s internal experience can be helpful in making thoughts and feelings feel less overwhelming. Instead of relating to these internal experiences as catastrophic, unmanageable, or harmful, we can learn to relate to them as merely events that are happening. In a sense, they are happening in the arena of our awareness. And in reality these unpleasant experiences are not harmful. They are just experiences. Removing the catastrophic interpretations that normally accompany these experiences such as “This is terrible,” or “I can’t stand it,” helps us to relate to them with a little more perspective, and a little more ease. 

When you notice your mind turning toward a judgment, or getting caught up in your internal experiences, acknowledge that the mind is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. Then simply turn your mind back to describing. Again and again. As you begin filling the mind with more grounded descriptions and fewer judgments and catastrophic appraisals, you’ll find the intensity of negative emotions begin to wane. Continue to practice this, and you may even find worries and regrets begin to fade into the background, with your current present experience taking center stage. 

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Barlow, D.H. et al. (2010). Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders. London: Oxford University Press. 

Linehan, M.M. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford.

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