What is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and How Does it Help in Addiction Recovery?

Addiction treatment is full of different therapies that you may have never heard of, and that’s okay. You are not expected to be an expert when you enter treatment. Instead, you should have the facility educating you and helping you progress through your recovery and healing. Even so, knowing about the different kinds of treatment can help you understand what to expect while in treatment. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a type of therapy used by facilities across the United States. It has seen great success in treating addiction and helping clients maintain sobriety for the long term. Understanding DBT and how it helps in recovery can help you prepare for treatment.

What is DBT?

DBT was developed in the late 1980s by psychologist Marsha M. Linehan. A type of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), DBT, is a psychotherapy that initially treated borderline personality disorder and suicidal ideation. However, it is now used to treat addiction and various mental health disorders, including depression, bulimia, binge-eating, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Using four skills modules, DBT helps clients better manage their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Acceptance is essential to DBT. Clients will learn how to accept and tolerate life circumstances and themselves. Throughout DBT treatment, clients will become more confident in their ability to handle strong emotions and situations.

The Four Modules of DBT

The four modules of DBT are there to help clients move through the treatment at their own pace, building various skills and confidence as they progress.

Interpersonal Effectiveness

The interpersonal effectiveness skills teach clients how to ask for what they need without guilt, how to cope with interpersonal conflicts, and how to say “no” in an assertive manner. Often those struggling with mental illness or addiction have a hard time coping with interpersonal conflict. They can become emotionally volatile, lashing out at people or isolating due to anxiety and depression connected to personal situations. The therapist will help clients overcome these struggles by teaching them how to properly change behavior and correctly say “no.” Simulating these scenarios allows them to have their own needs met and take care of themselves without risk of losing or harming the relationship.


Core mindfulness is crucial to DBT, helping clients learn to practice mindfulness and become more in tune with themselves and their external environment. It helps to pay attention to thoughts, sensations, and impulses. To become in tune with their external environment, a client must use senses such as hearing, smell, and touch. There are two kinds of mindfulness skills, “what” and “how.'' “What” skills are Observe, Describe, and Participate, while “how” skills are Non-judgmentally, One-mindfully, and Effectively. Learning how to practice mindfulness in volatile situations allows the patient to take a second and think before reacting.

Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation is an essential skill for all individuals. It teaches them to slow down, stop, and think through their emotions before reacting on the spot with potentially damaging actions or words. Specific skills for emotional regulation in DBT are:

  • Identifying the obstacles to changing emotions
  • Increasing positive emotional events
  • Engaging in opposite action
  • Using distress tolerance strategies
  • Reducing vulnerability
  • Increasing mindfulness to your current emotions
  • Knowing how to identify and name specific emotions

Distress Tolerance

This skill in DBT teaches individuals how to cope with pain and distressing situations skillfully and strategically. Based on mindfulness techniques, distress tolerance is about learning how not to evaluate or judge the current situation or yourself to reach acceptance. It teaches individuals how to accept what is happening in their lives without needing to approve of what has occurred. Crisis survival strategies are introduced, such as self-soothing, distracting, identifying the pros and cons, and improving the current moment. The acceptance skills involved include turning one’s mind towards the idea of acceptance, radical acceptances, and knowing the difference between willingness and willfulness.

How Does DBT Help Addiction Recovery?

Using the modules included in DBT can help those struggling with addiction learn various skills to help them stop using drugs and alcohol. These skills can help them stay clean long-term and accept change within themselves and their environment. The therapy is also realistic about staying clean and abstaining from addictive substances, encouraging patients to go through rehab, and complete treatment.

Specifically, DBT helps those struggling with addiction in a wide range of behaviors, such as:

  • Identifying and removing triggers
  • Alleviating symptoms of withdrawal
  • Reducing cravings and urges
  • Reinforcing healthy interpersonal relationships
  • Encouraging a healthy and sober environment
  • Learning to overcome behaviors that lead to substance abuse

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has several benefits for those struggling with mental health disorders and substance abuse. Developed in the 1980s as psychotherapy for those with borderline personality disorder, the therapy has been expanded. It is now used to treat a variety of mental illnesses and even substance use disorders. The four modules of DBT allow patients to move through the therapy at their own pace, learning to accept change and have a “clear mind” throughout their recovery. DBT may be especially beneficial for individuals struggling with addiction because it teaches them to overcome toxic behaviors that encourage the use of addictive substances. It also motivates them to stay abstinent and breaks up recovery to make it less intimidating. For these reasons, we at Northstar Transitions use DBT to treat our clients and help them on the road to long term sobriety. To learn more about DBT and Northstar Transitions, contact us today at (303) 558-6400.

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