Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) helps individuals deal with difficult emotions. DBT also teaches people how to live in the moment, manage their emotions, and develop healthy ways to cope with stress. Naturally, researchers wondered if DBT might be able to help treat individuals living with debilitating anxiety. Luckily, research continues to suggest that DBT can, in fact, help individuals deal with anxiety, stress, restlessness, irritability, fear, and excessive worry.
How DBT Works
Dialectical behavioral therapy is based on the idea that everything is composed of opposites. Change happens when there is a “dialogue” between opposing forces. In order for that dialogue to happen, individuals must accept seemingly contradictory ideas. Consider the following example: “I’m doing the best I can” and “I want to be better.” These statements seem to oppose each other, but the ability to change exists in between these two efforts. Even though the person is functioning well, they want to continue to improve themselves. In DBT, the individual and therapist can work together to find and resolve the contradiction between the individual’s current and desired state of being. From there, they can derive a treatment plan that will bring about positive behavioral changes.
How Does DBT Help Anxiety?
Approximately 1 in 5 Americans live with some form of anxiety or has an anxiety disorder. Luckily, research shows that DBT can help anxious people manage their anxiety better and enjoy greater levels of peace.
DBT Improves Emotional Regulation
Emotional regulation is our ability to manage and influence our emotions. That can include changing the way we think about challenging situations, reducing the intensity of our emotions, or simply distracting ourselves during a difficult moment. People with anxiety disorders have a hard time regulating their emotions. As a result, many individuals with anxiety disorders become overwhelmed by their emotional responses. Luckily, DBT can help improve emotional regulation. In DBT, individuals learn opposite action and self-soothing, two important skills.
1. Opposite Action
As the name suggests, individuals are taught to act the opposite of how they feel. This helps anxious people face the thoughts, feelings, and situations that frighten them rather than avoiding them. When individuals feel afraid, they are expected to confront their fear. When they’re angry and irritated, they learn to relax, breathe deeply, walk, or watch something funny. When they’re sad, they learn to seek out joy. Acting the opposite also means being active instead of withdrawing from the world when individuals feel depressed.
Self-soothing refers to our ability to calm emotional turmoil by grounding ourselves through the use of our 5 senses. Often, anxious people get stuck in the emotional realm of their minds. Self-soothing helps them escape their mind and reenter the physical world again. Instead of ruminating, obsessing, and worrying, DBT encourages anxious individuals to find relief through their senses. For example, individuals can soothe themselves with:
- Watching their favorite comedy, movie, or television
- Sitting outside in nature and watching the clouds pass by
- Drinking a cup of herbal tea to relax
- Chewing gum or sucking on a hard piece of candy
- Diffusing essential oils or lighting a candle
- Putting on your favorite perfume, cologne, or lotion
- Getting a massage
- Taking a warm bubble bath or hot shower
- Listening to their favorite music
- Using a sound machine or listening to and repeating positive affirmations
DBT Strengthens the “Attention Muscle”
DBT also helps anxious people practice mindfulness. In DBT, mindfulness is more than meditation. The mindfulness component of DBT teaches individuals to train their “attention muscle.” This allows them to better focus on what is going on in the present rather than the past or future, which is extremely helpful for anxious people who typically worry about what’s to come or what has passed.
DBT Teaches How to Make Balanced Decisions
Many anxious people have difficulty making balanced decisions. Typically, their decisions are made as a result of fear, stress, or excessive worry. DBT teaches individuals how to activate and work from “the wise mind” instead. The wise mind is the unique, balanced combination of the reasonable and emotional mind. When individuals act from the wise mind, they make decisions that consider their feelings as well as logic. For anxious people, this often means acknowledging their fear by being sensitive to their emotional state while pushing themselves to take action.
DBT Increases Distress Tolerance
Anxiety disorders tend to make individuals hypervigilant to threats and distressing circumstances. As a result, anxious individuals tend to experience restlessness, irritability, fear, and excessive worry more often than people without anxiety disorders. DBT combats this issue by increasing an individual’s distress tolerance. In DBT, individuals learn various techniques for handling crises and challenging circumstances. Some of DBT’s distress tolerance techniques include:
1. Improving the moment
IMPROVE stands for imagery, meaning, prayer, relaxation, one thing in the moment, vacation, and encouragement. When faced with anxiety individuals should:
- Imagine themselves successfully dealing with the problem
- Look for meaning in the painful situation
- Pray to a higher power and ask to tolerate the situation a little longer
- Focus on one thing at a time in the present moment
- Take a vacation in their mind
- Encourage themselves by saying, “I got this” or “I can do this.”
2. A pros and cons list
Making sensible decisions when you’re anxious can be difficult. Using a pros and cons list can help individuals decide if they should act on an anxiety-based urge or come up with a healthier decision.
TIPP stands for temperature, intense exercise, paced breathing, and paired muscle relaxation. When anxiety rises, individuals should:
- Cool their body temperature, which can help calm them emotionally
- Do an intense exercise to match their intense emotions
- Pace their breathing
- Do paired muscle relaxation
These techniques can help anxious individuals prepare for intense emotions and teach them to cope with the distressing feelings in a healthy way, making them less hyperreactive.
DBT Teaches Radical Acceptance
Radical acceptance teaches individuals to accept the world exactly as it is at the moment. The idea isn’t to turn away from painful experiences, but rather to accept the pain as real and true. This can be a life-altering change for anxious people who typically focus on the why and how of experiences. Instead of allowing individuals to ruminate and mull over their disbelief of the circumstance, radical acceptance teaches them to accept the situation and decide how to best move forward.
Restoring the Brain to Optimal Health
Here at StoneRidge Centers, we know just how taxing anxiety can be on the brain. But we also know that treatments like DBT can help you learn to manage anxiety in a healthy way.
Our comprehensive, brain-focused mental treatment program can help you overcome anxiety. Contact us today if you or a loved one struggles with anxiety or have an anxiety disorder.
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Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.