Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is synonymous now with being the exceptional evidence-based treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder and the result of countless hours of dedicated research by Dr. Marsha Linehan and her team. However, as more clinicians become familiar with the benefits of DBT, the realization is growing that the skills taught in DBT benefit anyone.
The overarching goal of DBT is to help individuals build a life they find worth living by developing the skills to manage emotions effectively, interact with others in a beneficial and authentic way, and create an environment around them that is validating and accepting. Some would argue this is a primary goal of most therapeutic interactions.
Marsha Linehan started as a researcher in the 1970s studying suicidal behaviors and later shifted to focusing on Borderline Personality Disorder. DBT was developed primarily by utilizing clinical experience and trial and error. As a method, it is rooted in behaviorism and gradually integrated dialectics as it became evident that behaviorism alone was insufficient for effective treatment.
What Exactly is ‘Dialectical’?
The foundation of DBT is dialectics, or the idea that opposites can coexist. To do this, one must learn that they can accept situations as they currently are, yet still work on making an effort to improve anything they do not like about the situation. Think of dialectic as the balance of opposing forces in all things.
The idea of practicing acceptance while also actively working to promote growth and change may seem counterintuitive. After all, how many times have you heard about the importance of discomfort in eliciting change? By accepting things as they are, however, the changes come from a place of self-love rather than self-loathing and are more likely to be maintained long term.
Think about yo-yo dieting as an analogy. An individual decides they hate themselves and engages in excessive workouts and restrictive eating, only to get lean, still hate themselves, but now also hate their lives. Positive mental health, like physical health, first comes from accepting who you are and loving yourself so much that you are willing to make lifestyle changes and adopt new maintainable habits, not extreme ones.
DBT is a combination of cognitive behavioral principles mixed with mindfulness practices and living. It focuses on teaching individuals skills to cope with heightened emotions effectively to minimize the chance that the individual will engage in negative, self-destructive behaviors when emotions are high.
Mindfulness is the practice of being in the moment rather than worrying about the future or past. It allows the individual to be aware of what is happening both internally and externally with a focus on remaining non-judgmental about anything that is occurring. The goal is to observe and be aware.
DBT does not consist of just individual treatment but also has a group therapy component. Learning the skills taught in DBT can be helpful regardless, but DBT is most effective when therapy is practiced in the same manner as established by the researchers. However, in cases where this is not manageable, any change in programming should make sure to include the essential tasks.
DBT seeks to:
- Enhance the individual’s capabilities
- Generalize them to their daily lives
- Improve motivations to change and
- Decrease dysfunctional behaviors, and structure the environment
Additionally, DBT is set up in a way to diminish the likelihood of clinician burnout when working with more problematic or stressful clients.
Mindfulness and acceptance are at the foundations of DBT, however there are four primary skills emphasized in the practice of DBT.
- Distress Tolerance
Often a significant problem of an individual’s in-the-moment difficulties lie in the fact that they are focused on thoughts that don’t help improve the situation, instead they enhance it. Thoughts like ‘that’s not fair’, ‘I’ll never get over this’, ‘this always happens to me’ serve only to enhance heightened emotions in a more distressing way. Learning to accept the situation as it is and stay out of the negative judgmental zone of thinking, helps individuals tolerate stressful situations. Only then are they able to actually solve the problem at hand should it need solving. Part of distress tolerance is learning the skills you can use in the moment to manage stress. Finding self-soothing techniques is key to managing those heightened in the moment emotions until the thinking brain is able to take control back. Every individual is different and no single technique can be used for everyone as a definite technique. Plan to have a backup plan or two. If going for a walk or run is your plan and there’s a storm outside, find an indoor option that works as well. The therapist should keep this in mind when helping clients work on distress tolerance.
- Core Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a method adopted from Eastern world practices with its roots in Buddhist philosophy. It has been utilized for over 2500 years. The emphasis is to focus on one thing at a time and remain in a non judgemental frame of mind. Mindfulness begins with a set of skills and practices like grounding and meditative examples, but the ultimate goal is for mindfulness to become a way of being that weaves into your daily life. To be mindful is to be aware and in the present moment as much as possible. Of course it is essentially impossible for the average individual (or even the exceptional individual) to maintain mindfulness at all times. However, the more often the individual is able to draw on this skill in life, the less distressing they often find life to be. After all, anxiety, sadness, regret are all often tied to focusing on negativity from the past or expecting negativity in the future. It is rare that the present moment holds more than a small measure of true distress.
- Interpersonal Effectiveness
Often when individuals struggle with regulating themselves, they are surrounded by chaotic and destructive relationships as well. Their friendships, partnerships, and family relationships tend to be unhealthy and shallow, never allowing the individual to learn healthy interpersonal skills. An important aspect of DBT is teaching skills to improve the individual’s ability to interact in a healthy manner with others. DBT teaches skills like conflict resolution, how to ask for what you need, and how to listen effectively. When combined with the other core skills taught in DBT, this leads to a significant improvement in all areas of the individual’s life.
- Emotional Regulation
It’s important to remember that many individuals are not taught how to effectively manage their emotions growing up and this is not a skill that we are born with. Unless an individual intentionally works on improving emotional regulation, they are left with the behaviors they learned in childhood. Often these behaviors are maladaptive. Anxiety of any kind sends the body into the fight, flight, or freeze response mode. This mode is not conducive to rational thought or logic. Individuals must first learn skills like deep breathing, box breathing, grounding, or other sensory processes and then make these things their first response to heightened emotions. DBT recognizes this and incorporates these skills into training. Additionally, it is not enough to simply return to a calm state. You should be able to name the emotion and identify the trigger that dysregulated you. Remember, this doesn’t mean that the individual has the excuse or should expect others to completely avoid that trigger. The individual needs to learn to understand why it is a trigger and gain control of whatever is contributing to this switch.
Why DBT and How Effective is DBT therapy
DBT has been backed by research for effective treatment of Borderline personality disorder. Additionally, multiple other studies have found the effectiveness of DBT with other mental health issues like bulimia and substance abuse.
DBT improves relationships because of the emphasis on interpersonal skills. Improving support networks is a significant way to improve mental health overall and can benefit anyone in need of improved social skills.
The skills of DBT apply beyond the treatment of severe mental illness. Mindfulness is an amazing skill that can be utilized by anyone.
The main focus of DBT is to improve the overall quality of life of the individual. Anyone can benefit from learning to work on making changes while also recognizing and accepting the difficulty of making such changes.
Using tools, like DBT worksheets, can help clients progress toward their therapy goals. TheraPlatform offers free worksheets for DBT, CBT and anger and anxiety management and their blog will keep you educated on the issues that therapists face today. Also, they’re currently offering a 30-day trial for their practice management, EMR and teletherapy in one software. No credit card required. Cancel anytime.
To find out more about Dr. Marsha Linehan and DBT a great place to start is the website at the University of Washington.
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