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Painted Brain | Observational Self Help
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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Observational Self Help


Have you ever noticed the light as it falls across a garden or parkland? I mean really noticed, not just seen it, but felt it as every shadow taints the foliage, like an angel’s breath has whispered over the landscape, changing the tones; noticed how every sparkle of light illuminates a leaf, hundreds of shades of green, noticed it so deeply it can be felt in the heart, like a hand squeezing with intensity. The light and the dark; just like the mind, nature chooses to illuminate or plunge into darkness at whim; everything it touches, playing and taunting, making us feel happy when we see the light and afraid when we’re steeped in darkness.

Mindfulness observation like this can really help to quell those moments of uncertainty and anxiety. When we feel unstable and start to feel detached from the world we can reconnect by observing our surroundings very closely, taking in the differences in light, color and texture that surrounds us. Observation can be very grounding and helps to keep us feeling safe when we feel those nerves building up. Before nerves swell to uncontrollable levels, one can use an exercise to bring those senses back into the here and now. We don’t have to be out in the wilds of nature to use this. My example of the changing light was just one way of observing closely that which surrounds us. The change of light could fit just as well in a cityscape. A while ago I came into contact with an exercise written by Blaise Aguirre and Gillian Galen. They outline in their self help book: Mindfulness for Borderline Personality Disorder: Relieve Your Suffering Using the Core Skill of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a mindfulness method called Ride The Wave (Galen and Aguirre, 2013 pp.102-106) suitable to practice in those hard to experience internal moments of wrangling. It goes like this:

Register your body sensations

Identify your action urges

Determine the emotion

Express to yourself non-judgmentally

Take deep breaths

Hands and body are open

Establish a grounded position

WAVE: Watch and notice your emotion like a wave

(see also here https://preview.tinyurl.com/y7f8u64t )

This exercise is about observing what is inside yourself as well as what is around you, and it is very useful to use when out and about anywhere. Here is one example of how it helped me when I could feel my anxiety building:

I was in a queue in the bank in town (a very slow moving, silent queue) and I was feeling very alienated and dissociated. I remembered the Ride the Wave technique I had been learning. This is how it worked for me in this particular setting:

1) I registered my body sensations and observed myself. At this moment it felt like every molecule in my body was scintillating. It was as if my whole body was vibrating in a condensed and localized manner quite differently to my surroundings. I was very aware of how this felt throughout my body that tingled with this sensation.

2) I identified my action urges. My urge was to lock up, lock myself inside myself cutting all communication and silently drift.

3) I determined the emotion, which was alienation, difference, not feeling part of the whole, extreme individualization to the point of isolation.

4) I expressed myself non-judgmentally. I accepted the way I felt and labelled it Feeling of Alienation. I didn’t try to force myself to feel another way, I didn’t attempt to change my feeling, I simply accepted that this was how I felt in the here and now. Observed, labelled, and accepted.

5) I took quiet, observational, deep breaths and counted to myself.

6) I opened my body to the air around me and observed how it felt.

7) I established a grounded position by feeling my feet on the ground and curling my toes in my shoes.

8) I felt the pure experience of being me in the moment and accepted every sensation that I was feeling while it ran its course through my body and mind.

Also, when I reached the counter, as the cashier was busy doing her thing, I touched the counter top to help further ground me to the space I existed in. I felt the contrast of wood and metal on my fingertips, the warmth and coolness of the differing materials, I noticed the colour and grain of the wood and the silvery grey of the metal. I remained aware of everything while concentrating closely to allow my alienation to function in the human world, so I could remain effective and finish the job in hand. Observation was key to everything.

I persevered with my mindful focus on my own inner space and kept with the grounding thought through my feet and eventually the worst of it dissipated and I could continue with my town trip for the rest of my needed time there. Acceptance is important as it helps to cease the inner fighting that leads to other manifestations of stress and intolerance. I also remembered self compassion and reassured myself that it was okay to be feeling this way, it was okay to feel differently located, that this was my normal and that was just fine, there is no fault with me, there is just me and I am wonderful the way I am.

I think the Ride the Wave skill can be used by anyone, whatever the personal diagnosis, it is useful for all intense emotions, and with practice can be used quietly, anytime, anywhere.

References:

Aguirre, B., Overcoming BPD: 9 New Year’s Resolutions: Resolution 6: mood instability no more Posted Feb 07, 2016 at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-borderline/201602/overcoming-bpd-9-new-years-resolutions [Accessed 08/05/18]

Galen, G. and Aguirre, B. (2013). Mindfulness for Borderline Personality Disorder. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

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