Dialectical Behavior Therapy

What Is Dialectical Behavior Therapy?

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) provides clients with new skills to manage painful emotions and decrease conflict in relationships. DBT specifically focuses on providing therapeutic skills in four key areas. First, mindfulness focuses on improving an individual's ability to accept and be present in the current moment. Second, distress tolerance is geared toward increasing a person’s tolerance of negative emotion, rather than trying to escape from it. Third, emotion regulation covers strategies to manage and change intense emotions that are causing problems in a person’s life. Fourth, interpersonal effectiveness consists of techniques that allow a person to communicate with others in a way that is assertive, maintains self-respect, and strengthens relationships.

When It's Used

DBT was originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder. However, research shows that DBT has also been used successfully to treat people experiencing depression, bulimia, binge-eating, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic-stress disorder, and substance abuse. DBT skills are thought to have the capability of helping those who wish to improve their ability to regulate emotions, tolerate distress and negative emotion, be mindful and present in the given moment, and communicate and interact effectively with others.

What to Expect

DBT treatment typically consists of individual therapy sessions and DBT skills groups. Individual therapy sessions consist of one-on-one contact with a trained therapist, ensuring that all therapeutic needs are being addressed. The individual therapist will help the patient stay motivated, apply the DBT skills within daily life, and address obstacles that might arise over the course of treatment.

DBT skills group participants learn and practice skills alongside others. Members of the group are encouraged to share their experiences and provide mutual support. Groups are led by one trained therapist teaching skills and leading exercises. The group members are then assigned homework, such as practicing mindfulness exercises. Each group session lasts approximately two hours, and groups typically meet weekly for six months. Groups can be shorter or longer, depending on the needs of the group members. DBT can be delivered by therapists in many ways. For instance, some people complete the one-on-one therapy sessions without attending the weekly skills group. Others might choose the group without regular one-on-one sessions.

How It Works

DBT is a cognitive-behavioral treatment developed by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., in the 1980s to treat people with borderline personality disorder. Those diagnosed with BPD often experience extremely intense negative emotions that are difficult to manage. These intense and seemingly uncontrollable negative emotions are often experienced when the individual is interacting with others—friends, romantic partners, family members. People with borderline often experience a great deal of conflict in their relationships.

As its name suggests, DBT is influenced by the philosophical perspective of dialectics: balancing opposites. The therapist consistently works with the individual to find ways to hold two seemingly opposite perspectives at once, promoting balance and avoiding black and white—the all-or-nothing styles of thinking. In service of this balance, DBT promotes a both-and rather than an either-or outlook. The dialectic at the heart of DBT is acceptance and change.

What to Look for in a Dialectical Behavior Therapist

DBT assumes that effective treatment, including group skills training, must pay equal attention to the behavior and experience of providers working with clients as it does to clients’ behavior and experience. Thus, treatment of the providers is an important part of any DBT program, and therapists should practice the skills themselves. They need to know basic behavior therapy techniques and DBT treatment strategies. Look for a mental health professional with specialized training and experience in DBT. The Linehan Board of Certification, a non-profit organization, has developed certification standards for clinicians. In addition, it is important to find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable working.

Sources

Chapman AL. Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Current Indications and Unique Elements. Psychiatry. Sep 2006;3(9):62-68

Panos PT, Jackson JW, Hasan O, Panos A. Meta-analysis and systematic review assessing the efficacy of Diabletctical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Research on Social Work Practice. 2014;24(2).

Valentine S, BankoffSM, Poulin RM, Reidler EB, Pantalone DW. The use of dialectical behavior therapy skills training as stand-alone treatment: A systematic review of the treatment outcome literature. Journal of Clinical Psychology. Jan 2015;71(1):1-20.