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Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): Manage Emotions, Improve Relationships

dialectical behavior therapy

Clinically Reviewed by: Dr. Robin Campbell, LMFT, PHD

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a transformative approach to mental health that has been gaining widespread attention for its effectiveness in treating a range of emotional disorders. Originally developed to help those suffering from borderline personality disorder, DBT has evolved into a comprehensive treatment that aids individuals in managing intense emotions and improving interpersonal relationships. At its core, DBT combines cognitive-behavioral techniques with mindfulness practices, offering a unique blend of acceptance and change strategies that empower individuals to live more balanced and fulfilling lives. This blog aims to explore the multifaceted aspects of DBT, sharing insights, strategies, and personal stories to illuminate how this therapy can be a beacon of hope and transformation. Whether you’re a therapist, a patient, or simply curious about mental health, join us on a journey into the heart of Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

What is Dialectical Behavior Therapy?

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a form of psychotherapy that is rooted in cognitive-behavioral techniques but distinct because of its incorporation of dialectical strategies and its focus on psychosocial aspects of treatment. Developed in the late 1980s by psychologist Marsha M. Linehan, DBT was originally designed to treat individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and chronic suicidality. It has since proven effective for a wider range of mental health issues, including depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and substance abuse problems.

The term “dialectical” refers to the synthesis or integration of opposites. In the context of DBT, this concept is applied by balancing acceptance-oriented strategies with change-oriented strategies. The therapy is built around the idea that improving emotional regulation and learning to cope with stress through a dialectical process can lead to profound and lasting improvement.


Core Components of DBT

DBT involves several key components, which together form a comprehensive treatment:

  1. Individual Therapy: Regular one-on-one sessions between the patient and therapist focus on addressing behaviors, emotions, and thoughts affecting the patient’s life, using DBT skills to enhance coping abilities.
  2. Group Skills Training: Patients attend group sessions where they learn and practice behavioral skills. The groups cover four main modules: mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance.
  3. Phone Coaching: In DBT, patients can contact their therapist between sessions for help in applying skills to specific challenges as they occur in real time.
  4. Therapist Consultation Team: DBT therapists participate in regular consultation team meetings which help them stay motivated and competent to provide the best treatment possible. These meetings are designed to support therapists in managing their own feelings about therapy and ensuring adherence to DBT principles.

Overall, DBT emphasizes both acceptance of the patient’s experience as a legitimate response to often intense emotional pain and the need for change in order to lead a life of emotional health and constructive relationships.


When Is DBT Used?

Here are some of the primary situations and conditions for which DBT is commonly employed:

  1. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD): DBT was originally developed to treat BPD, a mental health disorder characterized by significant emotional instability, impulsive behaviors, severe relationship issues, and intense episodic depression, anger, and anxiety. DBT helps individuals with BPD gain better emotional regulation and improve their interpersonal relationships.
  2. Suicidal Behaviors and Self-Harm: DBT is particularly effective in treating individuals who exhibit suicidal behavior and non-suicidal self-injury. The therapy provides skills to manage distress and emotional pain in healthier ways, reducing the frequency and severity of these behaviors.
  3. Eating Disorders: DBT can be adapted to treat eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. It helps patients develop better coping mechanisms and emotional regulation skills to manage the urges that lead to disordered eating behaviors.
  4. Substance Use Disorders: DBT has been adapted to help those with issues of substance abuse, focusing on decreasing abuse through skills that help manage triggers for relapse and reducing behaviors associated with substance use.
  5. Mood Disorders: Individuals suffering from mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder can benefit from DBT by learning skills to manage their emotional extremes and improve their relationships.
  6. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): For those with PTSD, especially complex PTSD often found in people with a history of prolonged trauma, DBT helps in learning to handle flashbacks, emotional numbness, and intense emotional responses.
  7. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): While not as commonly used for ADHD, DBT can help in managing impulsivity and enhancing task focus through its emphasis on mindfulness and emotional regulation.

DBT is applicable in these situations because it provides a structured framework for understanding and changing behavioral patterns, enhances patients’ capabilities to deal with emotional challenges, and fosters a therapeutic relationship based on validation, acceptance, and understanding. It is most effective when tailored to the specific needs of the patient, taking into account their particular struggles and the behaviors that are most disruptive to their life.


What to Expect When Using DBT

When engaging in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), whether as a patient or a healthcare provider, you can anticipate a structured and multi-faceted therapeutic approach designed to promote significant and lasting changes in behavior, especially for those dealing with emotion regulation issues or harmful behaviors. Here’s what to expect:

1. Comprehensive Assessment

Initially, therapists often conduct a thorough assessment of the patient’s challenges, behaviors, and mental health history. This helps in tailoring the DBT approach to the individual’s specific needs and establishing clear treatment goals.


2. Four Key Components

DBT includes four primary modes of treatment:

  • Individual Therapy: Weekly one-on-one sessions that focus on enhancing motivational aspects and applying DBT skills to specific challenges faced by the patient.
  • Group Skills Training: Usually conducted once a week, where patients learn and practice behavioral skills in a group setting. The curriculum covers four main modules: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness.
  • Phone Coaching: Patients have the opportunity to contact their therapist between sessions if they encounter situations where they need immediate coaching to apply DBT skills.
  • Consultation Team for Therapists: Therapists also participate in consultation teams which support their ability to provide effective treatment and manage their own stress.

3. Learning and Applying Skills

Patients actively learn and apply a range of skills:

  • Mindfulness: Learning to be fully present in the moment, which is the foundation of all skills taught in DBT.
  • Distress Tolerance: Focused on accepting and tolerating painful events and emotions when they cannot be changed.
  • Emotion Regulation: Techniques to manage and change intense emotions that are causing problems in a person’s life.
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness: Strategies to assert one’s needs while maintaining healthy relationships and self-respect.

4. Regular Homework Assignments

Homework is an essential part of DBT, as it helps patients practice the skills they learn in therapy in their daily lives. Completing these assignments encourages the transfer of therapeutic learning into real-world contexts.


5. Commitment to the Therapeutic Process

DBT requires a strong commitment from the patient, as it involves rigorous and regular sessions and homework. Therapists often require patients to agree to certain terms before starting therapy, such as working towards reducing self-harm behaviors or attending all sessions.


6. Validation and Acceptance

A unique aspect of DBT is its focus on validation, where therapists acknowledge and validate the patient’s feelings as understandable within their current life context, while still noting the need for change to achieve a healthier life.


7. Duration of Treatment

DBT programs can vary in length but typically run for about 6 months to a year, depending on the specific needs and progress of the patient.

Overall, engaging in DBT can be challenging due to the emotional and time investment required. However, it is also highly rewarding, as it significantly improves emotional and behavioral regulation skills, leading to enhanced life quality and better relationships.

How Does DBT Work on the Brain and Body?

DBT is a psychotherapeutic approach that not only influences behavioral changes but also impacts physiological processes in the brain and body. Understanding how DBT works on the brain and body can help illustrate why it is effective for various mental health conditions, particularly those associated with emotional dysregulation and stress-related disorders.


Impact on the Brain


  • DBT encourages the development of new neural pathways through consistent practice of new skills and behaviors. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. This ability is crucial in learning new behaviors and thought patterns that replace old, maladaptive ones.

Prefrontal Cortex Activation:

  • The prefrontal cortex (PFC), responsible for executive functions such as reasoning, decision-making, and impulse control, is significantly engaged during DBT. Skills like mindfulness increase PFC activity, which helps in better emotion regulation and reduces impulsivity, a common trait in disorders like borderline personality disorder.

Amygdala Regulation:

  • The amygdala plays a critical role in processing emotions and is often hyperactive in individuals with emotional dysregulation. DBT skills, particularly those involving mindfulness and distress tolerance, can help decrease amygdala reactivity, leading to reduced emotional intensity and improved emotional responses.

Hippocampal Support:

  • Chronic stress can damage the hippocampus, an area involved in learning and memory. Through stress reduction techniques and the fostering of a safe therapeutic environment, DBT can support hippocampal health, which is crucial for overall cognitive function and stress management.

Impact on the Body

Autonomic Nervous System Regulation:

  • DBT helps in regulating the autonomic nervous system, which controls the body’s fight or flight response. Techniques like mindfulness and deep breathing can shift the body’s response from the sympathetic nervous system (associated with stress responses) to the parasympathetic nervous system (which promotes relaxation and healing).

Stress Hormone Reduction:

  • Regular practice of DBT skills can lower levels of cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone. Reduced cortisol levels can decrease the overall feeling of stress, improve immune function, and lower the risk of chronic health issues related to stress such as hypertension and heart disease.

Improvement in Physical Health:

  • By reducing stress and improving emotional regulation, DBT can indirectly lead to better physical health outcomes. Individuals with better emotional control and stress management skills are less likely to engage in harmful behaviors like substance abuse or self-harm, which can have direct negative effects on physical health.

Overall, DBT’s effects on the brain and body are integral to its success in treating a variety of mental health disorders. By fostering both psychological and physiological changes, DBT helps individuals achieve more balanced and healthy lives.


What to Look for in a Dialectical Behavior Therapist

Choosing the right Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) therapist is crucial to successfully navigating and benefiting from this intensive form of treatment. Here are several key factors to consider when looking for a DBT therapist:

1. Proper Training and Certification

  • Specialized Training: Ensure the therapist has completed comprehensive DBT training. DBT is a specialized area of practice that requires specific training beyond general therapy training.
  • Certification: While not all skilled DBT therapists are officially certified, those who are have often undergone a rigorous process that evaluates their understanding and implementation of DBT. Certification by an organization like the Linehan Board of Certification can be a good indicator of quality.

2. Experience with Your Specific Issues

  • Look for a therapist who has experience treating your specific challenges, whether that’s borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, substance abuse, or another issue where DBT is applicable.

3. Adherence to DBT Protocol

  • Comprehensive DBT: True DBT involves multiple components including individual therapy, group skills training, phone coaching, and therapist consultation teams. Make sure the therapist offers a comprehensive DBT program.
  • Fidelity to the Model: Ask about how closely the therapist follows the standard DBT model. High fidelity to the original DBT model is typically associated with better outcomes.

4. Personal Compatibility

  • Therapeutic Alliance: The relationship between a therapist and patient is critical in DBT, given its intensity and the depth of emotional issues addressed. You should feel comfortable with your therapist’s style and approach.
  • Communication Style: Effective communication is key. The therapist should be clear, empathetic, and supportive, but also skilled in challenging you when necessary to help you grow.

5. Availability for All DBT Components

  • Ensure that the therapist or their associated clinic offers all aspects of DBT, including phone coaching if needed. This support is crucial in applying learned skills to real-life situations.

6. Consultation Team

  • A DBT therapist should ideally be part of a consultation team. This is a group of professionals who support each other in providing effective DBT, which helps maintain the quality and integrity of the therapy they provide.

7. Outcome and Progress Tracking

  • Effective DBT therapists often track progress throughout the treatment to ensure that the therapy is effective and to make necessary adjustments. Inquire about how progress and outcomes are measured and discussed.

8. Logistics and Accessibility

  • Consider practical aspects such as location, session times, and cost. Make sure they are manageable in relation to your schedule and budget. Also, check if they accept your insurance or offer a sliding scale payment system.

9. Initial Consultation

  • Many therapists offer an initial consultation which can be used to assess fit. This is a great opportunity to ask questions about their experience, DBT training, and how they manage the therapeutic process.

By taking the time to find a therapist who not only has the requisite training and experience but also fits well with your personal needs and circumstances, you set the stage for a productive and transformative therapeutic experience.


How Do You Know If You Need DBT?

You might consider Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) if you’re dealing with intense emotional fluctuations, impulsive behaviors, difficult interpersonal relationships, or if you have a history of self-harm or suicidal thoughts. DBT is particularly effective for those diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and can also be beneficial if other therapies have not been effective. Additionally, DBT is a good option for managing behaviors related to substance abuse, especially when these behaviors are linked to emotional challenges. If you find that your emotions significantly disrupt your daily life, relationships, or mental health, DBT may provide the structured support you need.


How Long Does Treatment Take?

The duration of treatment with Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) can vary depending on several factors, including the individual’s needs, the specific issues being addressed, and how the treatment is structured. Typically, a full course of standard DBT includes the following:

  1. Weekly Individual Therapy Sessions: These usually last for about one hour and are held once a week.
  2. Weekly Group Skills Training Sessions: These sessions generally last about two hours and are also held weekly.
  3. Phone Coaching: As needed, available for dealing with crises in real-time.

In terms of overall time frame:

  1. Standard DBT Program: A full DBT program traditionally runs for about one year. This length allows sufficient time for the comprehensive teaching and integration of DBT skills—mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness.
  2. Adapted DBT Programs: Some DBT programs are adapted for specific needs and can be shorter, ranging from a few months to six months. These programs may focus on addressing particular behaviors or disorders, such as substance use disorders or eating disorders.

The reason for this structured and relatively extended period is that DBT is not only about managing immediate crises but also about building lasting skills for managing emotions, relationships, and behaviors over the long term. The commitment to a year-long program is often necessary to facilitate meaningful and lasting change.


What are Some Alternatives to DBT?

Here are several alternatives to DBT that are also widely used in treating various mental health issues:

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a broad type of psychotherapeutic treatment that helps patients understand the thoughts and feelings that influence behaviors. It is typically focused on dealing with very specific problems. Structured and directive, CBT is often considered particularly effective for depression, anxiety disorders, and phobias.

2. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT uses strategies of acceptance and mindfulness (similar to those used in DBT) along with commitment and behavior-change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility. If someone finds the direct approach to change in DBT challenging, they might benefit from ACT’s emphasis on accepting and embracing their feelings and thoughts non-judgmentally.

3. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)

CPT is often used specifically to treat PTSD and related conditions. It has a strong focus on helping individuals learn how to challenge and modify unhelpful beliefs related to trauma. It is structured and time-limited, and involves an education component on the symptoms of PTSD, which could be particularly effective for trauma-related cases.

4. Schema Therapy

This form of therapy combines elements of CBT with other approaches, focusing on identifying and changing deeply ingrained patterns or themes in thinking, feeling, and behaving. Schema therapy can be particularly useful for individuals with chronic psychological disorders, such as personality disorders.

5. Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy is less structured and directive than DBT and focuses on increasing awareness of the unconscious content of a client’s psyche in an effort to alleviate psychic tension. It is based on the principle that present behavior is influenced by past experiences and repressed thoughts, which can be particularly effective for those who need to delve into past experiences as part of their healing process.

6. Mentalization-Based Treatment (MBT)

MBT is another approach specifically developed for individuals with borderline personality disorder. It focuses on improving the patient’s ability to mentalize, which involves understanding the mental states that underlie human behavior. This treatment helps patients consider their own thoughts and feelings and those of others, which can be particularly beneficial in improving interpersonal relationships.

7. Interpersonal Therapy (IPT)

IPT is a structured, time-limited therapy that focuses on resolving interpersonal problems and symptomatic recovery. It is based on the principle that relationship conflicts can contribute to psychological distress. IPT is commonly used to treat depression and eating disorders.

8. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

While not a therapy in the traditional psychotherapeutic sense, MBSR is a program that teaches mindfulness meditation to manage stress, anxiety, depression, and pain. It can be a useful adjunct to other therapies or a stand-alone intervention.

Choosing the right therapy depends on an individual’s specific needs, symptoms, and personality, as well as the severity of the disorder. Often, therapists might integrate elements from multiple therapies to best meet the needs of their clients.


Does Insurance Cover DBT?

Whether insurance covers Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) depends on several factors including your insurance provider, the specifics of your insurance plan, and sometimes the condition being treated.


Here are some key points to consider:

Type of Insurance:

  • Private Health Insurance: Many private health insurance plans cover DBT, especially if it’s deemed medically necessary and recommended by a licensed healthcare provider. Coverage can vary widely, so it’s important to check the specifics of what your plan includes.
  • Medicaid and Medicare: Coverage for DBT under Medicaid and Medicare can vary by state and by individual plan. These plans often cover DBT, particularly when it is part of treatment for conditions recognized as needing mental health intervention.
  • Employer-Sponsored Plans: Coverage will depend on the employer’s specific health benefits package. Larger employers generally offer plans that include mental health services like DBT.

Policy Details:

  • Pre-authorization: Some insurance plans require pre-authorization for mental health services. This means your therapist or another healthcare provider might need to submit documentation indicating the necessity of DBT for your condition.
  • In-Network vs. Out-of-Network: Insurance plans often cover more of the cost if the DBT provider is in-network. Out-of-network services can be more costly out-of-pocket unless your plan specifically covers a significant portion of out-of-network mental health care.
  • Deductibles and Co-pays: Your out-of-pocket costs for DBT will depend on your plan’s deductible, co-pay, or coinsurance requirements.

Navigating Insurance Coverage:

  • Verification: Before starting DBT, it’s a good idea to contact your insurance company to verify what coverage you have for mental health services, including any need for pre-authorization, covered services, and any associated costs you will need to pay.
  • Documentation: Sometimes, documentation from your healthcare provider outlining the necessity of DBT can help in securing coverage. This might include a diagnosis, treatment plan, and an explanation of why DBT is essential for your treatment.

Medically Necessary Treatment:

  • Insurance companies typically cover treatments they deem to be “medically necessary.” Since DBT is an evidence-based treatment, it is often recognized as necessary for conditions like borderline personality disorder and others involving significant emotional dysregulation.

If you’re considering DBT and are concerned about coverage, the best first step is to directly contact your insurance provider for detailed information regarding your specific coverage. Additionally, discussing payment options with your DBT provider can also clarify what you might expect to pay out-of-pocket.



In conclusion, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), developed by Marsha Linehan and grounded in dialectical philosophy and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), offers a robust and dynamic approach to managing emotional regulation and interpersonal challenges. DBT transcends basic symptom management, fostering a deep journey toward self-acceptance and transformative change. With its structured blend of mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness, DBT equips individuals with the necessary tools to navigate life’s complexities with resilience and composure.

For those battling intense emotions or unstable relationships, often symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), DBT serves as a beacon of hope. It offers not only coping mechanisms but also pathways to genuine, lasting transformation. Whether you are a patient seeking relief, a therapist looking to enrich your practice through the Linehan Board of Certification or Behavioral Tech, or simply someone exploring mental health options, DBT highlights the essential role of comprehensive mental health care in achieving a balanced and fulfilling life.

As we continue to delve into and discuss the intricacies of DBT on this blog, we invite you to engage with us, share your experiences, and join a community dedicated to understanding and advocating for mental wellness. Remember, the journey to recovery is not a solitary endeavor—DBT teaches us that through structured support and personal dedication, profound healing is attainable.


Seeking Treatment? We Can Help!

At New Hope Healthcare, as an in-network provider we work with most insurance plans, such as:


If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health challenges or substance abuse, reach out to New Hope Healthcare today. Our team of compassionate professionals is here to support your journey towards lasting well-being. Give us a call at 866-799-0806

Frequently Asked Questions

DBT is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that emphasizes the psychosocial aspects of treatment. It was originally developed to treat people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and chronically suicidal individuals. It has since been adapted for other complex mental health issues.

DBT includes a unique blend of acceptance and change strategies, mindfulness, and dialectical strategies to help individuals achieve better emotional and cognitive regulation by learning about the triggers that lead to reactive states and helping to assess which coping skills to apply in the sequence of events, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

DBT typically consists of four main components: individual therapy, group skills training, phone coaching (as needed for crises), and consultation team meetings (for therapists).
While initially designed for those with BPD, DBT has been effectively adapted for treating a variety of mental health issues, including depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and substance abuse.
DBT focuses on four primary areas of skill: mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation.

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