Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) is an evidence-based model of therapy that helps people learn and use new skills and strategies so that they build lives they feel are worth living.
What is Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)?
Dialectical means "the existence of opposites." In DBT, people are taught two seemingly opposite strategies: acceptance (i.e., that their experiences and behaviours are valid), and change (i.e., that they have to make positive changes to manage emotions and move forward).
DBT is divided into four stages of treatment. The stages are defined by how severe a person’s behaviours are.
In Stage 1, the person is often miserable and their behaviour is out of control. The goal is for the person to move from being out of control to achieving behavioural control.
In Stage 2, the person may feel they are living a life of quiet desperation: their life-threatening behaviour is under control, but they continue to suffer. The goal is to help the person move from quiet desperation to full emotional experiencing.
In Stage 3, the challenge is to learn to live: to define life goals, build self-respect and find peace and happiness. The goal is for the person to lead a life of ordinary happiness and unhappiness.
For some people, Stage 4 is needed. The goal is to find a deeper meaning through a spiritual existence.
How does Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) work?
A standard DBT program requires a one-year commitment. Shorter programs, sometimes called “DBT-informed programs,” use some methods or structure of DBT and can be very helpful for certain people.
A standard DBT program usually has five components, each serving a specific function:
A DBT skills training group is facilitated by a skills therapist in a group format similar to a class. Tasks are provided for people to practice between sessions. The purpose is to help people introduce effective and practical skills into their lives, which they can use when they are distressed. These skills are meant to replace other unhealthy and negative behaviours. The class usually meets once per week for 2.5 hours. It takes 24 weeks to get through the full skills curriculum, which is often repeated to create a one-year program. In the class, four skills are taught:
mindfulness: the practice of being in the present and acknowledging thoughts, feelings and behaviours as they happen, without trying to control them
distress tolerance: the process of learning how to cope during a crisis, especially when it is impossible to change, and accepting a situation as it is, rather than how it should be
interpersonal effectiveness: the ability to ask for what a person needs and to say no when necessary, while still maintaining self-respect and relationships with others
emotion regulation: the ability to manage emotions so that they do not control thoughts and behaviours.
Individualpsychotherapy focuses on enhancing motivation and helping people apply the skills to specific challenges and events in their lives. These sessions provide opportunities for the person and the therapist to come together and discuss their individual goals. Sessions are usually held on a weekly basis for 60 to 90 minutes.
In-the-moment coaching uses telephone coaching and other real-life (“in vivo”) coaching to provide in-the-moment support. The therapist will coach a person through a stressful event and encourage them to use their DBT skills. The goal is to ensure that skills are generalized and applied to a person's day-to-day life.
Case management strategies empower the person to take control of their lives and care. The therapist applies the learned strategies to teach the person how to be autonomous and how to be their own case manager.
The DBT consultation team is focused on supporting the people who provide DBT, including therapists, skills therapists, case managers and others. The consultation team is designed to help therapists stay motivated and competent so they can provide the best treatment possible. The team helps one another by managing burnout and sharing knowledge.
The goal of all of these elements is to help the person build a life they feel is worth living.
Who can Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) benefit?
How is DBT different than cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)?
Both DBT and CBT are forms of psychotherapy. In these therapies, a person talks to a mental health professional about their challenges and learns skills to help them cope. However, CBT primarily focuses on learning ways to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours. DBT teaches people to accept their thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and the techniques to change them. Not only are personal skills taught in DBT, but skills for interpersonal relationships are also emphasized.
DBT is based on CBT, but it focuses more on the emotional and social aspects of living. In fact, DBT was created to help people manage their intense emotions.