What Is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)?

Dialectical behavior therapy

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

What Is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy?

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a modified type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Its main goals are to teach people how to live in the moment, develop healthy ways to cope with stress, regulate their emotions, and improve their relationships with others.

DBT was originally intended to treat borderline personality disorder (BPD), but it has been adapted to treat other mental health conditions. It can help people who have difficulty with emotional regulation or are exhibiting self-destructive behaviors (such as eating disorders and substance use disorders). This type of therapy is also sometimes used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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Everything You Need to Know About DBT Therapy

This video has been medically reviewed by Daniel B. Block, MD.

Techniques

DBT has evolved to become an evidence-based psychotherapy approach that is used to treat many conditions. Settings in which DBT are often used include:

  • Group therapy where patients are taught behavioral skills in a group setting.
  • Individual therapy with a trained professional where a patient's learned behavioral skills are adapted to their personal life challenges.
  • Phone coaching in which patients can call the therapist between sessions to receive guidance on coping with a difficult situation they are currently in.

Some of the strategies and techniques that are used in DBT include the following.

Core Mindfulness

One important benefit of DBT is the development of mindfulness skills. Mindfulness helps you focus on the present or "live in the moment." This helps you pay attention to what is happening inside you (your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and impulses) as well as using your senses to tune in to what's happening around you (what you see, hear, smell, and touch) in nonjudgmental ways.

Mindfulness skills help you slow down and focus on using healthy coping skills when you are in the midst of emotional pain. The strategy can also help you stay calm and avoid engaging in automatic negative thought patterns and impulsive behavior.

Sample Exercise: Observe Mindfulness Skill

Pay attention to your breath. Take note of the sensation of inhaling and exhaling. Watch your belly rise and fall as you breathe.

Distress Tolerance

Distress tolerance skills help you accept yourself and your current situation. DBT teaches several techniques for handling a crisis, including:

  • Distraction
  • Improving the moment
  • Self-soothing
  • Thinking of the pros and cons of not tolerating distress

Distress tolerance techniques help prepare you for intense emotions and empower you to cope with them with a more positive long-term outlook.

Sample Exercise: Putting Your Body in Charge

Run up and down the stairs. If you're inside, go outside. If you're sitting, get up and walk around. The idea is to distract yourself by allowing your emotions to follow your body.

Interpersonal Effectiveness

Interpersonal effectiveness helps you to become more assertive in a relationship (for example, expressing your needs and be able to say "no") while still keeping a relationship positive and healthy. You will learn to listen and communicate more effectively, deal with challenging people, and respect yourself and others.

Sample Exercise: GIVE

Use the acronym GIVE to improve relationships and positive communication:

  • Gentle. Don't attack, threaten, or judge others
  • Interest. Show interest with good listening skills (don't interrupt someone else to speak)
  • Validate. Acknowledge the other person's thoughts and feelings
  • Easy. Try to have an easy attitude (smile often and be light-hearted)

Emotion Regulation

Emotion regulation lets you navigate powerful feelings in a more effective way. The skills you learn will help you to identify, name, and change your emotions.

When you are able to recognize and cope with intense negative emotions (for example, anger), it reduces your emotional vulnerability and helps you have more positive emotional experiences.

Sample Exercise: Opposite Action

Identify how you're feeling and do the opposite. If you are feeling sad and want to withdraw from friends and family, make plans to see your loved ones.

What Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Can Help With

DBT was developed in the late 1980s by Dr. Marsha Linehan and colleagues when they discovered that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) alone did not work as well as expected in patients with BPD. Dr. Linehan and her team added techniques and developed a treatment to meet the unique needs of these individuals.

Though developed with BPD in mind, DBT might also be an effective treatment for:

Benefits of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

In DBT, the patient and therapist work to resolve the apparent contradiction between self-acceptance and change to bring about positive changes in the individual in treatment. Part of this process involves offering validation, which helps people become more likely to cooperate and less likely to experience distress at the idea of change.

In practice, the therapist validates that an individual's actions "make sense" within the context of their personal experiences without necessarily agreeing that the actions are the best approach to solving a problem.

Each therapeutic setting has its own structure and goals, but the characteristics of DBT can be found in group skills training, individual psychotherapy, and phone coaching.

  • Acceptance and change: You’ll learn strategies to accept and tolerate your life circumstances, emotions, and yourself. You will also develop skills that can help you make positive changes in your behaviors and interactions with others.
  • Behavioral: You'll learn to analyze problems or destructive behavior patterns and replace them with more healthy and effective ones.
  • Cognitive: You'll focus on changing thoughts and beliefs that are not effective or helpful.  
  • Collaboration: You'll learn to communicate effectively and work together as a team (therapist, group therapist, psychiatrist).
  • Skill sets: You’ll learn new skills to enhance your capabilities.
  • Support: You'll be encouraged to recognize your positive strengths and attributes and develop and use them.

Effectiveness

Because this approach to therapy is able to help people successfully improve their coping skills, they are able to develop effective ways to manage and express strong emotions. Researchers have also found that DBT is effective regardless of a person's age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and race/ethnicity.

  • For BPD: Studies have found that DBT is effective in the treatment of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and reducing suicide risk in individuals with BPD. One study found that after a year of treatment, more than 75% of people with BPD no longer met the diagnostic criteria for the condition.
  • For suicidal behavior: Another study found that interventions that incorporated skills training as a treatment component appeared to be more effective in reducing suicidality than DBT without skills training.
  • For other conditions: Most DBT research has focused on its effectiveness for people with borderline personality disorder who have thoughts of suicide and self-harm, but the method could also be a successful treatment for other mental health conditions. For example, research has found that this type of therapy also appears to be effective in the treatment of PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

Research also suggests that DBT may also be useful in the treatment of children with disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.

Things to Consider

DBT requires a significant commitment of time. In addition to regular therapy sessions, people are also required to do "homework" to work on skills outside of the individual, group, and phone counseling sessions. This may pose a challenge for people who have difficulty keeping up with these assignments on a regular basis.

Practicing some of the skills may also be challenging for some people. At different stages of treatment, people explore traumatic experiences and emotional pain, which may be upsetting.

How to Get Started

The best way to find out if DBT is right for you is to talk with a professional who is trained in the method. They will evaluate your symptoms, treatment history, and therapy goals to see if DBT might be a good fit.

If you or a loved one might benefit from DBT, it's important to talk with a healthcare provider or mental health professional who is trained in the approach. That said, it's not always easy to find DBT therapists.

You can start your search with the Clinical Resource Directory, which is maintained by Behavioral Tech (an organization founded by Dr. Linehan to train mental health professionals in DBT). The directory lets you search by state for clinicians and programs with DBT training through Behavioral Tech, LLC, or the Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics at the University of Washington.

You can also ask your provider, current therapist, or another trusted mental health professional to refer you to a colleague who specializes in DBT. You may also find DBT therapists who offer online therapy.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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11 Sources
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