Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) teaches a number of skills to help people regulate their emotions. All of these skills are based in mindfulness. Mindfulness simply means being intentionally aware of the present moment without judgment, attachment, or rejection. Decades of scientific research has shown that mindfulness exercises can be effective in reducing stress and improving a number of mental health problems.

In DBT, we divide the mindfulness skills into two types, the “What” and the “How” skills. The “What” skills are Observe, Describe, and Participate. The “How” skills are Non-Judgment, One Mindful, and Effective. Today, we are talking about the “What” Skills.



DBT Mindfulness Exercises: The “What” Skills



Mindfulness Observe Skill

Mindfully observing means noticing what is. We can observe things around us with our five senses, like watching a loved one’s face, listening to music, sniffing a candle, touching a soft blanket, or tasting chocolate. We can also observe inside our own minds or bodies. This might include noticing our thoughts, emotions, urges, or observing body sensations.

When you practice observing mindfully, try to do it without words. So, when you’re watching your loved one’s face, simply see and notice their face. Don’t say to yourself, “I see my love’s face.” This is hard to do! Our brains are so used to adding words to what we observe, it often happens automatically. If you find it difficult to observe without adding words, don’t worry, it’s normal. When you find yourself attaching words to what you’re observing, simply notice it and then draw your attention back to wordless observation. This practice of noticing that your mind has wandered away and drawing your attention back is like a mindfulness “rep” (just like the reps we do when working out). The more you practice, the stronger your skills will get and the easier it will become.

In DBT, we also recommend observing with a “Teflon” mind. This means that we don’t “grab onto” an observation. We also don’t try to push it away. We allow the observations to come and go at their own pace. This can be particularly helpful when you are observing your own thoughts and emotions. Sometimes, thoughts and emotions can be painful and we are tempted to avoid them. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. Attempting to not think about something usually causes us to think about it again and again. When we allow our thoughts, we give them the space to come and then leave on their own.


Here are a few DBT mindfulness exercises for practicing the observe skill:


  1. Close your eyes and imagine a sky full of puffy white clouds drifting past you. Each time a thought pops into your mind, place the thought on a cloud and watch it drift away.
  2. Go to a quiet room and listen to your favorite song. Notice the sound of the music with your full attention.
  3. Choose any familiar object and observe it with a “beginner’s mind.” This means you are looking at it as if you’ve never seen it before. See what new things you can notice about the object.
  4. Walk outside barefoot and notice the sensation of the ground under your feet.
  5. Cook your favorite meal. As you are preparing it, notice the smells of all the ingredients. When you eat it, pay attention to the feel of the food in your mouth. Chew slowly and savor the taste. Notice the sensation of swallowing. 
  6. Go for a “mindful walk.” Notice what you can see around you. Notice the sounds of birds, wind, cars, animals, and people. 
  7. Listen to a podcast in a foreign language and pay attention to the sounds of the words. 
  8. Set a timer, sit still, and notice any urges to move without acting on them. If you feel an itch, don’t scratch it, If you want to shift positions, don’t. Simply notice these urges without moving for two minutes.




Mindfulness Describe Skill

When we mindfully describe, we put words to what we’ve observed. It’s important to do this without adding any of our own judgments or interpretations. It’s also important to only describe what you can observe. So this means no describing another person’s thoughts, feelings, or intentions.

Take a look at this picture and see if you can describe only what you see without judgment or interpretation.


smiling person, thumbs up



A mindful description of this photo might be “A drawing of a person with a smiling mouth, wide open eyes, pinkish circles on the face, and holding the hands in a ‘thumbs up’ gesture.” Note that the mindful description does not include words like “happy,” “excited,” “pretty,” or “approving.” Those would be interpretations and judgments.


Here are a few DBT mindfulness exercises to practice the Describe Skill:


  1. Watch a loved one with curiosity and mindfully describe their movements.
  2. Listen to music and mindfully describe the sounds you hear.
  3. Write a paragraph or two describing the events of your day. Be sure to only include mindful descriptions of things that happened without adding judgments, assumptions, or interpretations.
  4. Spend 3 minutes observing your thoughts and writing them down on a piece of paper. Then, label each thought as either Now, Future, or Past. Next, put a “J” next to any thoughts that are judgments.
  5. Do any of the “observe” exercises above and add a mindful description.


Mindfulness Participate Skill

Participating is completely immersing yourself into an activity. Let yourself engage in the moment, as if that moment is the only thing that exists. Do this without self-consciousness, worry, or judgment. When we participate with awareness and intention, it allows us to fully live in the present, which is really the only thing we have. The past is over, and the future hasn’t arrived yet. 

To participate, do only what is needed in each moment. If you notice your mind wandering away from the activity, simply notice that and then return your attention to the activity. This will probably happen many times, and that’s normal. As mentioned above, the act of noticing your mind has wandered and bringing it back is part of the mindfulness practice, and it strengthens your mindfulness abilities.


Here are a few DBT mindfulness exercises for practicing the participate skill:


  1. Dance to your favorite song and allow your body to simply move to the music without thinking.
  2. Sing in your car at the top of your lungs.
  3. Go for a run, practice yoga, lift weights, or do any other exercise and be completely present in the workout.
  4. Read an engrossing novel.
  5. Watch TV without playing with your phone, eating, or any other distracting activity.
  6. Have a conversation with your partner and allow yourself to become completely immersed in it.
  7. Engage in any enjoyable activity without judgment, worry, or self-consciousness.




How Do I Find a DBT Therapist Near Me?

If you are looking for help from a DBT therapist in Maryland, Gladstone Psychiatry and Wellness can help. We are in network with most Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance plans and we see both adults and adolescents age 11 and older. We offer sessions via zoom or in person in our Hunt Valley, Bethesda, Columbia, or Frederick, Maryland locations. Our comprehensive DBT program is certified by the DBT-Linehan Board of Certification. This means that we provide DBT therapy with a high level of fidelity to the evidence-based model created by the developer of DBT, Dr. Marsha Linehan. 


If you would like to schedule an appointment, visit our website or email us at dbt@gladstonepsych.com for an application.