What Is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy?

The Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Approach

It is helpful for anyone hoping to improve their mental health to know: “What is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)?” DBT is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It is used for the purpose of managing difficult emotions. Additionally, it helps improve relationships. Initially, it was created to prevent suicide. It has since been adapted to aid anyone struggling with negative feelings. Above all, the goal of DBT is to find balance. We’ll explore how it works, what it treats and who it can help.

What Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Means

The first step in understanding DBT is knowing what the name means. The word “dialectic” is the key. In philosophy, dialectic means reaching balance by using points and counterpoints. It’s easiest to think of it as measuring pros and cons. For example, a person makes an argument in favor of something. Say, taking a new job. They then make an argument against it. They then refine their argument in favor of taking the job to address the problems raised by the argument against it. This process continues on both sides in order to clarify their thinking. By looking at both the positives and the negatives they find balance. It clarifies their thinking.

The ultimate goal of DBT is to avoid black-and-white thinking. By examining both sides of an issue, a person can find the good and the bad. This helps create a more healthy, realistic perspective. Once the person fully understands the opposing sides, they can find ways to change their behavior to increase the positive and decrease the negative.

The Background of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

In the 1980’s, a Ph.D. researcher named Marsha Linehan was seeking a way to help people who were thinking about suicide. Through speaking with them, she discovered that many of these people saw their lives as hopeless. She determined that their hopelessness came from seeing their problems as being unsolvable. The only solution they could see was to end their lives. Dr. Linehan’s goal was to help these people find alternative solutions.

What is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Used to Treat

DBT can help a wide number of mental health issues. These include:

  • Suicidal behavior and self-harm.
  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
  • Anxiety disorders.
  • Anger management.
  • Depression.
  • Bipolar disorder.
  • Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  • Eating disorders.
  • Substance Use Disorder (SUD).

The DBT Process

What Dr. Linehan discovered was that suicidal people tended to view all their problems as a whole. She developed DBT to help break these problems into smaller parts. This involved teaching people 4 steps. These steps are the core of how DBT works:

  • Acceptance of problems the person cannot change right now.
  • Handling stress without turning to suicide or other destructive behaviors.
  • Focusing on personal value and connection to other people.
  • Learning to solve the problems they can.
  • Undertaking these steps typically requires the assistance of a trained DBT therapist. Here’s a breakdown of how these steps work.


DBT uses mindfulness similar to that found in Zen Buddhism. By accepting that certain problems cannot be changed, the person can feel less anxious about them. For instance, a person cannot change the past. Therefore, having anxiety about the past only creates more problems in the present and future. When a person can accept the damage of their past, they learn to live with it. Though that is easy to say, it is extremely difficult to do. Which is why DBT is an ongoing process.

Part of acceptance is also allowing a problem to wait. By accepting that a problem can be fixed, but not fixed right now, the person learns to let it rest. It allows them to be less stressed about an issue that they aren’t able to tackle right now. After they deal with more immediate troubles, they can address problems that have been waiting.

Acceptance is particularly useful in DBT for anxiety. Once a person fully accepts they are powerless over a problem at any given time, they can worry about it less.

Managing Stress

In the second part of DBT, a person learns to manage stress. Hopefully, now that they’ve gained some measure of acceptance for problems outside of their control, they aren’t as overwhelmed. Because they’ve identified the things they can change and accepted the things they can’t, they know what is within their control.

Stress management is where the dialectical part of DBT comes into play the most strongly. When a person looks at the good and bad of a situation, they gain a more objective outlook. Though the troubles haven’t changed, the person is able to see them in a new light. Before, they thought situations were impossible and painful. As they go through the dialectic process of viewing both sides, they see advantages. Or they see how they can turn a circumstance around.

Coping with stress is especially useful in DBT for anger management. If a person feels less agitated and is able to see more than their own point of view, they’re less likely to react with rage.

Focusing on Connection

One of the most important things anyone with a mental health issues needs is a connection to other people. This is because loneliness is dangerous. Therefore, DBT helps focus on connection. By doing this, a person learns to be a better friend, partner, spouse, or just a better acquaintance.

During DBT a person will also look at how they talk to themselves. As they do this, they learn to identify where they attack themselves. Through this process, they start to treat themselves with greater kindness and compassion. This, in turn, makes them more understanding of other people. They are then better equipped to form bonds that will help them when they are under stress.

Problem Solving

After a person has accepted problems as they are, learned to manage their stress levels and gotten better at seeking support, they’re better able to deal with problems. In the first part of the DBT process, they’ve identified which problems they can solve, and which they need to accept. In the second part, they’ve learned to help calm themselves and look at each problem from more than one perspective. They’ve also become better at seeking help in dealing with their challenges.

Through all this, they can now pick a single problem and work on solving it with kindness, objectivity and whatever assistance they need.

How to Start Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

Understanding “What is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy?” won’t necessarily make you able to do it. It’s a simple process with practice, but you first need to learn the skills. This is where a mental health professional comes in. If you’re looking for a DBT therapist, or want to get more resources on DBT, reach out to us for help. Our staff can assist you with any mental health issues you may be having. They can also suggest good therapists to help you on your quest to a happier state of mind. Don’t suffer any longer than you have to. Give us a call and let us support you in solving your problems.

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