Every Monday morning from the beginning of January to the end of June, I’m attending a two hour group session that uses the Dialetical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). Psychologist Marsha M. Linehan developed DBT in the 1980s for the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which is what I have (you can read more about BPD here). The Monday therapy group draws heavily on Linehan’s teaching which, like its near cousin Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, concentrates on dealing with the symptoms rather than focusing on the causes of mental distress, as is the case in more traditional psychoanalysis.
There are advantages and disadvantages to any therapeutic approach. I’m on a waiting list for individual trauma therapy but at this moment I really value the DBT group and its emphasis on emotional regulation. Each week we learn another skill that can help us better cope with our often volatile feelings. Some exercises are cognitive, while others are practical tips. This week we looked at ways to distract ourselves when in a heightened emotional state. Crucially, this is not about avoiding difficult or unacceptable situations; rather it is a way to calm down when we feel triggered.
One of the suggestions yesterday was so simple yet of such genius that I knew I had to share it here on my Tuesday Reviews Day post. Linehan’s key DBT textbook offers seven different ways of distracting yourself when distressed, one of which is via sensations – i.e. you create another sensation to distract your mind from its negative spiral of thoughts. One way to achieve this is by eating sour sweets.
Yes, eating sour sweets is a bona fide suggestion from an NHS group therapy course.
At first it seemed a bit ridiculous, albeit a good excuse for all the bingeing on Haribo Tangfastics I did in the autumn. But the more I thought about it, the more it makes sense. Eating something that’s verging on unpleasant automatically overrides anything else that’s happening in or around us. Just think about last time you accidently tasted something you didn’t like. There’s not much else on your mind while you’re going ‘Bleurgh’.
In a spirit of scientific experimentation, I paid a trip to the local Mr Simm’s Olde Sweet Shoppe shortly after the group ended. The owner knowledgeably guided me to the sourest jelly sweet (apple fizz), the hottest boiled sweet (Hot or Wot?) and the worst confection of them all: Mega Sour Apples (these genuinely come with a consumption warning to not eat more than one at a time).
I purchased 100g of each and I can now vouch that eating any one of these babies really does keep your brain entirely occupied. Even if you aren’t in a low or negative mood, they are most definitely a distraction; I literally could not think about anything else except the flavour and the possibility that I was actually going into anaphylactic shock, such was the swelling in my tongue.
I don’t think you have to be struggling with BPD or any other mental health issue to benefit from this simple idea. Buy some strongly flavoured sweets (from my not-that-extensive testing, boiled sweets seem to be better than chewy ones) and stash them away in your handbag, desk drawer or somewhere at home. Next time that you’re feeling stuck in a negative frame of mind, pop one and see what happens. In a bizarre way I’m actually quite excited about my next downturn in mood just so that I can gobble some more and really test the theory. Although I will definitely only be attempting one Mega Sour Apple at a time.