What is DBT?
Posted by AEJ1967
29th Jun 2014

I have found myself being asked this question a few times by people who follow my twitter feed or this blog. It's funny how easy it is to obscure your message by the use of jargon. I actually enjoy explaining what DBT is and what I have got out of it as a treatment - it has been a massive positive in my life. Unlike the question 'what does the borderline in BPD mean?' Not easily answered as frankly most people now don't actually agree with it as a descriptor of this condition - anyway that's another topic altogether and if my DBT has taught me anything it is not to be distracted by thoughts that are not relevant to the here and now.

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) was developed by a clinical psychologist in America called Marsha Linehan (do google the name she has produced numerous videos and articles about her therapy) in the 1990s. It is a combination of mindfulness techniques and Cognitive Behavioural approaches to help those diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder learn to understand and control the extreme fluctuations in their emotions.

As a replacement for BPD as a label some have taken to referring to the condition as either Emotional Sensitivity Personality Disorder or Emotional Dysregulation. As a descriptor I find the latter preferable. Whatever term you choose to describe it, what it meant for me was a see sawing of moods which could cycle from being 'hyper', excitable, voluble and energetic to extreme feelings of depression with a high degree of suicidal feelings within the space of a few hours, several times a day.

As you can imagine such constant cycling of emotions can be extremely draining and distressing. A key hallmark of the condition is poor impulse control accompanied by strong urges towards self harm (or self destructive behaviours) and suicide. Throughout my life, until I really started to practice my DBT skills, the idea of killing myself or harming myself was an almost constant presence in my consciousness.

DBT is not offered as a cure for these issues, but seeks to offer the sufferer the means to interrupt and then control the emotional storms which are the moment by moment experience of BPD. One important point to make is that no treatment in Mental Health should be considered as one size fits all. This is why the individual sessions of DBT are so crucial for each person. I can only decide what skills I need to master in order to manage my emotional life. Because it is a skills based treatment it requires a major commitment, not only during the time in group and with your one to one therapist, but, more importantly, after discharge the treatment will only work long term if I commit myself on a regular basis to remind myself of the skills and to practice them.

I remember my GP expressing her frustration with patients who had been referred to the Physiotherapist to deal with one condition or another. She would make follow up appointments to see them after six weeks or so. 'How's it going?' She would ask on their return. 'No use whatsoever'. She would persevere 'Really?'. 'Oh yes, I went twice and to be honest the exercises were alright when I was there, but then the complaint returned in between visits.' Now, it seems to me that the GP shouldn't then have to explain that these exercises should be repeated daily in between 'visits'. If I think after discharge 'well that's that then' not practice or take seriously the skills I have worked so hard to develop, during my time in therapy, then I don't think I should be surprised if I start to lose control and become a prisoner of my emotions once more. I need to keep going with it.

So what are these skills?

The core 'treatment' is a weekly skills group along with a weekly one to one session. In the group we are introduced to the skills and encouraged to start to use them to manage day to day issues as they arise. In the individual sessions there is an opportunity to discuss in more detail the skills that are most useful to me as an individual and the key parts of my emotion dysregulation I should be working on.

There are four main modules:

1. The Core Skill of Mindfulness runs throughout the length of both the group and individual sessions. (typically one year, although some centres are trying to offer 6 months which only allows one cycle of the skills modules).
2. Distress Tolerance - skills to help me manage when I am in distress without reverting to self destructive and self harming strategies that I may have used all my life. (here the importance of developing familiarity over a longer period of time becomes clear).
3. Emotion Regulation - longer term skills to enable me to recognise what feelings I am dealing with and to develop strategies to maintain a stability in those emotions. (these have become more regularly used by me since my discharge in seeking to maintain my progress with managing my emotions)
4. Interpersonal Effectiveness - anyone who has BPD or has lived with someone with BPD will tell you that the emotional maelstroms inherent in the condition wreak havoc in all sorts of important relationships. Reading other people is not a natural skill that I possess because of my invalidating upbringing. This is an area I need to consciously be aware of and that I need to practice constantly in order to counteract the natural urge to respond to my instinctive (often mistaken) feelings about the relationships around me.

I completed a one year programme, during this time, each module is introduced and after six months, and a review of progress, they are repeated and reinforced both in the skills group and in the one to one sessions.

This is a very sketchy outline of DBT, you will no doubt have many other questions.

Such as, what do I mean by Dialectics? Essentially, my understanding (which will be limited to my own experience) is that it seeks to bring stability and balance to my emotional life so that I can enjoy the parts of my life that are to be enjoyed, without expecting everything to be 'sorted' or 'perfect' (I've covered this in my blog on recovery and what it now means to me here:

The following are links to helpful websites about BPD and DBT: really useful exercises and videos for the practice of DBT skills and Mindfulness, Healing for BPD is an online version of DBT but there are also really helpful articles and examples of using DBT skills in recovery. There are many other websites that offer useful mindfulness videos or self soothe ideas etc. Just be selective and be aware nothing will bring about any miracle cure and any skill needs a lot of time and hard work to develop.

I think the best way to find out about Marsha Linehan who has an amazing story about coping with BPD herself, is to just google her name.

Access to DBT groups in the NHS seems to be very limited. I have been so lucky to live in Lancashire and to be able to access the Central Lancashire DBT Team for nearly 18 months. I am so grateful for a local NHS Trust (Lancashire Care Foundation Trust) which has seen fit to offer not only this, but also other therapies for BPD. Having not meshed with one previous therapy, I only had a waiting time of one year to access DBT. I am aware that not every area has so much to offer to what is a cinderella condition, but hopefully, if I can encourage others to ask about it and whether it is available in their area then, maybe, some 'up high' might begin to see the light.

For me, having my discharge report set down in black in white that I have not self harmed for over 18 months has helped me to see just how far I have come. My time in the group was an important part of my journey but I haven't arrived, I'm just moving on. I continue to work on my Emotion Regulation skills, occasionally I use my Distress Tolerance skills when an echo of my past takes me by surprise. Rather than creating dependence one of the best things DBT has given me is a developing confidence that I am ready for life without Mental Health Services, that I am capable of maintaining and building on the progress I have made so far and that even, if I may never have a life without my turbulent emotions, they will never have to overwhelm in the same way again.

I will be forever grateful for the visionaries behind this great innovation for BPD sufferers.

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