• Katie Merrill, LCSW

Mindfulness Tools for BFRBs

You’re sitting in a hallway about to take an important exam. Your urge to pick at the blemishes on your skin in this moment feels almost palpable. Your fingers are bursting with energy, screaming for relief through your body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB).


In order to get that relief, your brain tricks you and floods you with a stream of passive thoughts to keep the behavior going: “Just this one,” “I’m too stressed right now not to pick,” or “Tomorrow’s the day I’ll really start working on this.”


The BFRB wins out and you pick (or pull or bite or whatever it is your body wants you to do). You feel worse.


You may have found yourself in this position too many times to count and therefore feel out of options, out of hope that it can really be any other way.


Consider this: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” - Viktor Frankl


What’s happening around us (e.g. waiting for an exam, driving, watching TV) or inside us (e.g. stress, boredom, frustration, negative thoughts) are the stimuli that drive our BFRB. By practicing mindfulness strategies, we grow the space between those stimuli and our response to them. In doing so, we give ourselves the gift of choice - to do something different, moment by moment.


Important note: Mindfulness skills are often called practices - for good reason. Knowledge of the skill doesn’t do the work for us.


We must find creative ways to work the tools into our lives, otherwise they just sit in the toolshed collecting dust. When we don’t actively practice them (by creating a plan to do so and then sticking to that plan), then we may get mad at those tools for not “working," or at the person who suggested them, or at ourselves for feeling like we failed at them.


Each of the skills listed below is an open invitation, tools to be picked up and used again and again in novel, creative ways. If the tool didn’t work for you today, don’t fret. Forgive yourself and pick it up again tomorrow. You are a beginner in training your brain to respond to your body’s urge to pick/pull/bite in a different way.


Provided with each mindfulness skill are useful tips to apply to your work on your BFRB.


Mindfulness Skill #1: Observing


Scenario 1: I pull my hair and I think to myself “I’m out of control and I’ll never be able to stop this.” I fuse with this thought, I allow myself to believe it, and then I feel ashamed...


Scenario 2: I practice observing my thoughts, and when I notice statements going through my head like the one above, I gently try out: “I’m having the thought that I’m out of control and I’ll never be able to stop pulling out my hair.” I’m not trying to eliminate the thought completely (that’s impossible), but by adding that little phrase, we create some distance from the buggers. We recognize that a thought is just a thought, it is not a fact, and we don’t have to take it seriously today.


We can observe our behavior in a similar way. So many of us don’t even know that we’re engaging in our BFRB as it’s happening. Instead of reacting to our urges or to the behavior itself, we can practice observing them: “Hey, I’m doing my BFRB right now. That’s ok, this is something I’m working on. I’m going to make the really hard choice in this moment to do something different.”


Try:

  • Say to yourself, “I’m having the thought that…” when you notice one of your harsh, unhelpful statements run through your brain.

  • Try to count, in a single one-hour period, the number of times you notice yourself engaging in your BFRB. Write this number down. Not to shame yourself, but to flex the brain muscle of observation.

  • Every time you observe yourself engaging in the BFRB, take 3 deep breaths, no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, be kind, and do the hard, self-serving thing. (Bonus: add a loving touch such as placing your hand on your heart as you do this.)


Mindfulness Skill #2: Beginner’s Mind


As Jon Kabat-Zinn explains, “We bring so many attitudes and desires to every moment, we don’t allow ourselves to see things as if for the first time. In the mind of an expert there are few possibilities, but in beginner’s mind, there are infinite.”


The Zen Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind teaches one to bring an attitude of eagerness and openness to our subject and welcomes new solutions to existing problems.


We may look at our BFRB and feel daunted by how far we have yet to go or exhausted with having this issue in the first place. By practicing beginner’s mind, we can choose to shed preconceived notions about what we have felt incapable of in the past, and allow ourselves to be invigorated, excited, and challenged by the project of working on our BFRB.


Try:

  • One new BFRB habit blocker (e.g. mirror cover, hat, gloves) or replacement strategy (e.g. fidget toy, sensory beads, squishy ball, a new craft) and commit to it this week, fully. Allow yourself to be excited by it and curious about how it could work for you today, in a new way. Treat it like a new toy.

  • Look at our skin/hair/nails as if like a child or alien new to this world. I might be fascinated by the texture or color of my skin or hair, rather than disgusted or angered by it. Open yourself up to new interpretations of your perceived flaws.



Mindfulness Skill #3: Present Moment


The mind will trick you and tell you that it’s important that you failed so many times at stopping your BFRB in the past and that this BFRB thing will never be different in the future. This is a trick because this type of thinking doesn’t help you. It robs you of the only time you ever have to make change for yourself - the present moment.


Radically forgive yourself for the past and let the future be what it is: unpredictable. Ground yourself to the here and now. This is where life is, nowhere else. There are limitless, exciting ways to welcome your attention to the present.


Try:

  • Engage in a guided meditation. When we meditate, we practice bringing our attention again and again back to the present moment. In doing so, we strengthen our brain’s ability to observe our urges, halt our body-focused repetitive behaviors, and choose something new, any moment of the day.

  • Take a mindful shower. Notice the sensations of the water on your skin, the aromas of the soap, and the sounds. Notice how wonderful the human body is, in all that it does for us.

  • Go on a walk and notice things you’ve never noticed before.


Mindfulness Skill #4: Non-judgment


We have opinions about everything. “They’re annoying.” “This food is cold” “I’m weird and disgusting for doing my BFRB right now.” It is human nature to be discerning and categorize our world with judgments in order to move quickly through it. Yet incessant passive judgment about ourselves and others tends to rob joy from us.


Claudia Miles, LMFT explains recovery for BFRBs in the following way: “Recovery is about learning to support yourself through inevitable setbacks, and to stop beating yourself up.” This is perhaps the hardest work of all in dealing with a BFRB.


Harsh judgments about ourselves stall the progress we are able to make on our BFRBs. We get into a trap of thinking that we can bully ourselves into good behavior. NEWSFLASH: It doesn’t work. The more we judge ourselves, the worse we feel and the more likely we are to keep the behavior going.


The work is then not judging ourselves for the judging (we are human, after all), but in simply observing it and recognizing how it may not be serving us. Then actively choose a more compassionate tone. (This is hard for our perfectionist minds at first.)


Try:

  • Write down judgments about ourselves related to our BFRBs (e.g: “I’m ugly”), and follow them up with less judgmental alternatives: “I notice I’m being judgmental of my hair right now. I may not like that I pulled today, but I know that name-calling doesn’t make my situation better.”

  • For one day, give up all spoken judgmental statements. Notice what sort of effect this has on your mood and view of the world.

  • Say in your mind “...and I’m going to let that just be” next to judgmental sentiments that pop up for you. Actively practice neutral observation.


Share below what BFRB strategies you’ve been working on! Stay tuned for more tips to help you manage your BFRB.


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