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What is DBT?

What is DBT?

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is an evidence-based psychotherapy that combines Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with Zen Buddhism. Created by Marsha Linehan, it was originally used to treat Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Now it is used to treat many different emotional dysregulation and impulse control disorders and symptoms.

DBT is made up of many skills that help you regulate your emotions, improve your relationships and withstand times of distress without impulsivity. These skills take practice to incorporate into your daily life. They work like a muscle, building up strength with practice over time. DBT teaches you which skills are best used when and how best to apply them.

The ultimate goal of DBT is to build a “life worth living.” It has a few core components that help you do this:

The first is the principle of dialectics. Black and white thinking is common among people with BPD and others. Dialectics is the shades of gray in between. The idea is that two opposing things can both be true. It’s something that learners have to accept.

Another core component is Mindfulness. In fact, it’s the first of four modules in the treatment program. Mindfulness practice helps you live in the moment and stop holding onto painful emotions. It also helps you gain the space from the troubling situation that you need to use other DBT skills.

DBT is evidence-based, meaning that there is research supporting its effectiveness. Data show reduced rates of suicidality, hospitalizations, and self-injury. Research on the efficacy of DBT for various disorders is ongoing.

The core of DBT is that there is a therapeutic alliance, where the professional and client are on the same level with no hierarchy and goals are to agree upon. DBT views clients as an ally who work together for solutions to help the client.

The DBT Origin Story

Marsha M. Linehan created DBT in the late 1980s to treat chronically suicidal individuals like those with BPD. The story, however, actually begins much earlier than that. Dr. Linehan found herself in inpatient psychiatric care in the 1960s. Over the course of her two-year stay, doctors gave her various diagnoses and various treatments that were common at the time. She was a self-harmer and chronically suicidal. Looking back, Dr. Linehan posits that she had BPD herself. These experiences led her to get a PhD in psychology and create DBT, a more linear treatment. According to Linehan, she didn’t want anyone else suffering through not only the symptoms she had, but the chaos of randomly applied treatments that doctors had tried on her in desperation.

The Structure

DBT contains four modules: Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness. Official DBT programs rotate between these modules over the course of a year or so. As a client, you have individual as well as group therapy, each once a week. Group is where you learn new DBT skills while individual is more similar to talk therapy.

DBT programs expect clients to keep Diary Cards which track moods, urges, behaviors, and skill use. If you do not complete or bring your diary card to group or individual therapy, you may be asked to complete a Behavior Chain. Behavior chains analyze the series of events leading to the target behavior so you can see where you might be able to intervene next time. They also serve as negative reinforcement for using target behaviors.

DBT also utilizes skills coaching calls. Providers instruct clients to call their therapist or the one on duty when in or approaching crisis in order to receive help choosing and utilizing skills in the moment. Failure to use coaching calls leading to behavior usage can result in behavior chains.

Lastly, DBT therapists attend consultation in a group setting with other DBT counselors to troubleshoot issues with group members as well as issues clinicians are experiencing.

All of these components add up to create the revolutionary treatment of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.

As well as in-person courses there are now options to learn DBT online in a group setting and on other sites with DBT skills for self-learning.


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The official Marsha Linehan DBT books are below. There is a first and second edition of each.

Innovative DBT

Since Linehan’s manual in 1993, there have been other professionals who, utilizing the core concepts of DBT, have created their own DBT skills. These are often referred to as “innovative” skills. Other DBT skill texts include:

View more DBT books and workbooks here.

Additional Resources

Mental Health Resources

We aren’t the only mental health resource out there. Check out these books, websites, social media accounts, and more for additional support. Read More

DBT Flashcards

Making DBT skills second nature takes practice. Use these flashcards on their page, download your own to print out, or purchase our pre-made set from our shop. Read More

DBT Encyclopedia

DBT has its own lingo which can be hard to understand for beginners. Visit our homemade DBT Encyclopedia to figure out what a term means. Read More

Mindfulness Exercises

Mindfulness practice is key to DBT. You don’t have to meditate in silence everyday, though. Try these Mindfulness exercises to guide you. Read More

Diary Cards

Diary cards help track your emotions, urges, behaviors, and skill use. They help you see patterns. Learn how to use them and get samples. Read More