Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is an evidence-based therapy used to help people who struggle with many challenges in life, such as experiencing negative symptoms of mental conditions.
DBT is a therapy based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a psychotherapy that has proved to be significantly effective for those experiencing mental health difficulties.
CBT helps people identify goals and to overcome obstacles that may prevent these goals, as well as change negative thinking patterns.
This is similar to DBT, which teaches critical skills to help individuals learn to manage their intense emotions, cope with distress, and cultivate healthy relationships.
In This Article
The D in DBT, dialectical, relates to two seemingly opposite viewpoints that can be true simultaneously.
The dialectical philosophy is that all things are connected, and change is constant and inevitable.
Dialectical strategies in DBT help the individual and their therapist to get unstuck from extreme positions, balance out viewpoints, and view situations from multiple perspectives to reach a logical viewpoint.
The B in DBT, behavioral, means that DBT aims to change behaviors.
During sessions, the DBT therapists learn to assess the situations and target behaviors that are relevant to the client’s goals in order to figure out how to solve problems in their lives.
How DBT Was Developed
Marsha Linehan developed DBT in the 1980s, initially developed to help people with suicidal thoughts who often had a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD).
Individuals with BPD often suffer from the following symptoms:
Experience intense emotions
Have difficulties with their relationships
Their actions are very impulsive
Their thinking is very black and white
Thus, DBT was developed to help people with DBT manage these core symptoms by providing them with skills to reach their goals.
This way, people with DBT would know how to respond to challenging situations or manage relationships so that they can have a better quality of life overall.
What DBT can help with
Although DBT was developed with borderline personality disorder in mind, the techniques used in DBT can be effective for many of the following mental health conditions:
Major depressive disorder
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Substance use disorders
People who feel the symptoms of their mental health condition negatively impact their quality of life may wish to seek help through DBT.
As well as helping individuals who have mental health conditions, DBT does not need to be limited to those with a diagnosed condition. People who experience any of the following may also benefit from DBT:
Those who struggle with intense emotions that they feel they cannot control.
Those who find it difficult to manage challenging situations.
Those who are experiencing negative consequences from encountering a lot of stress.
Those who struggle to maintain healthy relationships; may describe their relationships as unstable or like a rollercoaster.
Those who experience negative and recurring thought patterns.
Those who experience a lot of anger or get into many conflicts with others.
Those who are experiencing negative consequences after a traumatic life event.
Those who may feel hopeless or empty.
Those who have tried other therapies and found they have not worked for them.
Those who feel as if their life is out of control.
Those who believe their life is not fulfilling.
Those who have suicidal thoughts or show self-injurious behaviors.
The idea of DBT is to teach important skills and techniques through the four following components:
The premise of mindfulness is to teach the individual to be focused on the present moment and feel grounded. This technique is useful for those struggling with an unstable sense of self and/or those with difficulties focusing on the present.
This technique encourages the individual to pay attention to what is happening around them as well as inside, such as their thoughts and feelings. People completing mindfulness will learn to focus on their thoughts in a non-judgemental way and notice any negative thoughts which may arise.
After focusing on the present moment, the idea is that the automatic negative thoughts are not engaged with, resulting in feeling more settled.
This, therefore, teaches healthy coping skills to those struggling with negative thoughts.
Learning to regulate emotions is a component of DBT that aims to help individuals be more comfortable and accepting of their own emotions.
This technique helps people to learn how to manage their difficult emotions, which may arise so that the intense emotions they experience do not end up controlling the situation.
Through emotional regulation, people are taught that they may experience intense emotions, but they can choose how to react to them in a healthy way.
They can also learn to avoid situations that they know will trigger strong emotions, helping them to have more positive emotional experiences overall.
As people experiencing issues with their mental health may encounter a lot of distress, the component of distress tolerance in DBT is important to learn how to manage upsetting situations.
This technique aims to help individuals to think about some of the healthy things they can do to manage their behavior and emotions so that they do not act impulsively or risky, with potentially negative consequences.
This component can help with changing negative thought patterns. For instance, instead of thinking, ‘It’s not fair,’ they may ask themselves instead, ‘Can I control the situation?’.
If they realize the situation cannot be controlled, they learn to accept it for what it is.
This skill can help individuals prepare for intense emotions they may experience and use distraction techniques to help decrease feelings of distress (e.g., listening to music or going for a walk).
The final component of DBT is interpersonal effectiveness which aims to teach individuals to communicate in healthy and respectable ways.
This teaches people to have more stable relationships with others by teaching them skills to assert themselves and put in good boundaries. This technique can also help build listening skills and conflict resolution skills and help to build trust with others, which is a major issue for those with BDP especially.
Individuals can also learn to deal with challenging people in a healthy manner, acknowledge others’ thoughts and feelings, and learn to ask for what they need in a clear way.
What DBT sessions involve
There are different modes of treatment for DBT, which makes it different from other psychotherapies, which may typically consist of just one mode of treatment. Each mode of treatment is intended to meet a specific function.
The function of one-to-one sessions with a therapist is to enhance the client’s motivation to apply learned DBT skills to specific challenges and events in their lives.
These sessions are usually once a week and run for the duration of the therapy. The clients will be asked to complete homework tasks outside the individual sessions.
An example of this is daily ‘diary cards,’ which are used to track emotions, behaviors, and thoughts.
Another goal of individual therapy is for the therapist to help the client structure their own lives, becoming managers of their lives.
The therapist does this by applying dialectical, validation, and problem-solving skills to enable the clients to learn to be their own managers of personal life challenges.
Group skills training
Group skills training typically runs once a week for two-hour sessions for the duration of the therapy.
Within these sessions, the group will learn skills in the four components of DBT: mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness.
As these are in a group setting, the clients have opportunities to interact with others and roleplay scenarios.
The group leaders will also assign homework to aid the clients in practicing the skills they have been taught to their everyday life.
Another mode of treatment that is unusual for other therapies for mental health is phone coaching.
This means that the DBT therapist will be available to contact by phone for any incidents where the client may face a challenging moment.
The therapist can give guidance on how to cope with a situation as it is happening. The overall goal of this contact is to coach the client on how to put their DBT skills into practice whenever required.
Below are some of the positive changes that can arise as a result of completing DBT:
Individuals notice behavioral changes – they should be more able to identify when harmful behavior patterns threaten to occur and should be able to replace these unhealthy behaviors with healthier ones.
The learning of new skill sets to deal with any challenging situation in life.
Cognitive changes including the alteration of negative thoughts and beliefs about the self.
The acceptance that some situations cannot be controlled but can be responded to in healthy ways.
Finding new, healthy methods of coping with distress.
Being able to work collaboratively with others (especially during the group skills training).
Being able to communicate more effectively with others resulting in healthier relationships.
Linehan et al. (1991) conducted the first randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of DBT on women with BPD.
It was found that after completion of DBT, participants showed significant improvements in chronically suicidal and self-injuring behaviors.
A more recent meta-analysis of the effectiveness of DBT on those with diagnosed BPD found that most studies reported significant reductions in suicidal ideation, self-injurious behaviors, depression, and anxiety (Bloom, Woodward, Susmaras, & Pantalone, 2012).
To conclude, DBT continues to be an effective psychotherapy for BDP, with one study finding that after a year of therapy, around 77% of the patients no longer met the criteria for the diagnosis of BPD (Stiflmayr et al., 2014).
As well as being effective for BPD, there is also evidence that the skills learned in DBT reduced depressive symptoms, improved affective control, and improved the mindfulness self-efficacy of those with bipolar disorder (Van Dijk, Jeffery, & Katz, 2013).
DBT has also been shown to help treat some of the symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was found in a study that after completion of the therapy, individuals with PTSD were less likely to attempt suicide, and self-harm, and had reduced feelings of shame, anxiety, and trauma-related guilt (Harned, Korslund, & Linehan, 2014).
Do you need mental health help?
Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
Contact the Samaritans for support and assistance from a trained counselor: https://www.samaritans.org/; email email@example.com .
Available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (this number is FREE to call):
Rethink Mental Illness: rethink.org
0300 5000 927
Bohus, M., Haaf, B., Stiglmayr, C., Pohl, U., BoÈhme, R., & Linehan, M. (2000). Evaluation of inpatient dialectical-behavioral therapy for borderline personality disorder—a prospective study. Behaviour research and therapy, 38(9), 875-887.
The Linehan Institute Behavioral Tech. What is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)?.
Bloom, J. M., Woodward, E. N., Susmaras, T., & Pantalone, D. W. (2012). Use of dialectical behavior therapy in inpatient treatment of borderline personality disorder: a systematic review. Psychiatric Services, 63(9), 881-888.
Harned, M. S., Korslund, K. E., & Linehan, M. M. (2014). A pilot randomized controlled trial of Dialectical Behavior Therapy with and without the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Prolonged Exposure protocol for suicidal and self-injuring women with borderline personality disorder and PTSD. Behaviour research and therapy, 55, 7-17.
Linehan, M. M., Armstrong, H. E., Suarez, A., Allmon, D., & Heard, H. L. (1991). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of chronically parasuicidal borderline patients. Archives of general psychiatry, 48(12), 1060-1064.
Stiglmayr, C., Stecher-Mohr, J., Wagner, T., Meiβner, J., Spretz, D., Steffens, C., Roepke, S., Fydrich, T., Salbach-Andrae, H., Schulze, J. & Renneberg, B. (2014). Effectiveness of dialectic behavioral therapy in routine outpatient care: the Berlin Borderline Study. Borderline personality disorder and emotion dysregulation, 1(1), 1-11.
The Linehan Institute Behavioural Tech (2017) What is dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT)? https://behavioraltech.org/resources/faqs/dialectical-behavior-therapy-dbt/
Van Dijk, S., Jeffrey, J., & Katz, M. R. (2013). A randomized, controlled, pilot study of dialectical behavior therapy skills in a psychoeducational group for individuals with bipolar disorder. Journal of affective disorders, 145(3), 386-393.