What are Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Skills?

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Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free ...Read More

What are DBT skills and why are they taught? The treatment is becoming more widely available. People are more often referred to DBT groups. But what, exactly, is taught in these groups and why? DBT assumes that people engage in high risk and problematic behaviors in an attempt to modulate extreme emotion. Doesn’t sound intuitive? The idea is that behaviors such as, self-injury, over and under eating and substance use all distract from and sometimes even alleviate intensely painful emotions. Physical pain can distract from emotional pain, it can remind someone who is numb that they are alive and it is a concrete expression of the pain they are experiencing. DBT skills teach healthier ways to manage intense emotion.

There are 4 skills modules in DBT:


MINDFULNESS: These skills are designed to teach a person how to focus their mind and attention. Achieving focus requires control of attention, which is a capability many people with impulsive and mood dependent behaviors lack. Mindfulness teaches individuals to observe and describe their own behavior, which is necessary when any new behavior is being learned, when there is some sort of problem or a need for change.

DISTRESS TOLERANCE: In this module, group members learn skills to deal with the pain and distress that are a part of life. They focus on accepting the current situation and finding ways to survive and tolerate the moment without engaging in maladaptive behavior. Four sets of crisis survival skills are taught, including: distracting, self-soothing, improving the moment, and thinking of pros and cons.

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EMOTION REGULATION: Difficulty regulating painful emotions is often central to behavioral difficulties. Emotion regulation skills include learning to identify and label current emotions, identify obstacles to changing emotions, reduce emotional reactivity, increase positive emotions, and change emotions.

INTERPERSONAL EFFECTIVENESS: These skills include strategies for asking for what you need, saying no, and coping with conflict. The skills focus on obtaining changes you want, maintaining relationships, and maintaining your self-respect. In this module group members learn to analyze a situation and to determine interpersonal goals.

A large array of skills are taught in each module, which allows people to begin to use those skills that best fit their personality and strengths. But whether you’re learning to play the piano, throw strikes or master a new language, the key to learning a new behavior is practice, practice, practice.

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