What is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)?

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a fairly new type of psychotherapy or “talk therapy.” Developed by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., DBT was first introduced over a dozen years ago as a treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). People with BPD experience intense emotions which lead to actions such as self-injury, anger outbursts or abrupt ending of important relationships. Although these actions temporarily reduce emotional pain they often wind up causing independent problems that can make life even more difficult.

Historically, BPD has been thought of as one of the most difficult problems to address effectively. Several research studies, often referred to as clinical trials, have demonstrated that DBT is an effective treatment for adults with BPD. Both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association currently consider DBT to be a first-line treatment for BPD.

As a result of DBT’s success in treating adults with BPD, it has been adapted for adolescents struggling with severe emotional turmoil and intensely problematic ways of dealing with their distress. DBT has also been modified so that it can be used with other difficulties such as eating disorders, substance use, and anger management.

So what exactly is DBT? In a nutshell, DBT is a compassionate type of behavior therapy that is intended to help people move toward having a life that feels even more meaningful and worth living. Distress, emotional pain, interpersonal difficulties, and behavior problems such as over-eating, not eating, using substances, self-injuring, losing control, withdrawing, and using-up relationships can make it incredibly difficult to function normally and lead a life that feels meaningful and worthwhile. DBT targets the issues that cause distress and teaches skills to deal with them without having to resort to self-defeating behaviors. It does so in a framework, though, that helps us understand that we are doing the best we can even though we need to learn ways that work better.