Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Substance Abuse

When it comes to getting help for substance abuse, there are many types of therapy from which you can choose. Having these options is important because no single type of therapy works for everyone. Each specific treatment caters to addicts who have specific needs. One example is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

Determining if DBT is right for you depends on your individual needs. Let’s take an in-depth look at DBT for substance abuse to help you decide.

What Is DBT for Substance Abuse?

Basically, DBT is a specific type of dynamic therapy that therapists use to treat various mental disorders. They mainly use this technique to help people overcome substance abuse. However, it can also help people overcome other mental disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Like cognitive behavioral therapy, DBT is a type of talk therapy. The goal is for people to identify and overcome negative emotions that lead to dysfunctional behaviors. This technique focuses on the idea that altering or eliminating negative emotions helps individuals stop negative behaviors.

Even when people face hard facts, it can be difficult for them to overcome addiction. For example, the fact that addiction is destroying their lives might not be enough to get them to stop abusing drugs. DBT focuses on balancing acceptance and change to empower them. The ultimate goal is to give them the push that they need to live drug-free lives.

DBT typically has a high success rate among people with addiction. Psychologists attribute this to the fact that it focuses heavily on the principle that therapy should involve the development of a real relationship between the patient and the therapist. This relationship helps both parties work toward the same goal. In this case, that goal is the proper management of addiction.

What’s the Difference Between Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

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It’s not uncommon for people to confuse DBT and CBT if they aren’t familiar with them. After all, both are forms of talk therapy and can treat substance abuse. With these similarities, how do people know if they should get CBT or DBT for addiction?

Understanding CBT

CBT teaches people that their thoughts, behaviors, and feelings influence their actions. Let’s say that an individual believes that everyone hates them. This person might avoid social situations because of that thought. In the end, this thought negatively affects the individual’s actions. The idea behind CBT is that a positive change in thoughts can lead to a positive change in actions.

Also, CBT is structured in a way that helps people achieve short-term goals that are more focused on the present. It starts with educating them about their mental illnesses or substance abuse problems. Then, they can learn strategies and skills to solve everyday issues. These skills not only help them in their current situations but also in future situations.

Understanding DBT

Unlike CBT, DBT places more focus on the social and emotional aspects of a disorder. Using DBT, therapists help individuals deal with unstable emotions that cause harmful behaviors. DBT is an evidence-based approach to treatment that actually started as a treatment for people who suffer from borderline personality disorder.

Key Differences Between CBT and DBT

There are areas of CBT and DBT that overlap. However, the key differences between the two are relationships and validation. DBT teaches people that what they experience in life is real. They learn to accept who they are regardless of the difficulties they have to face. Additionally, it focuses heavily on relationships, including those with their therapists, loved ones and friends.

CBT is much more about learning new skills that help individuals manage their feelings and thoughts. It teaches them coping skills and how to deal with negativity within their lives. Consequently, some people benefit from both CBT and DBT to manage addiction.

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The Basic Principles and Different Modules of DBT for Substance Abuse

When discussing DBT and substance abuse, it’s important for people to understand the four modules of this therapy. Then, they’ll know what to expect during DBT.


Mindfulness plays an important role in DBT. It teaches people to be present and mindful. To achieve these goals, DBT teaches observation and critical thinking. Through mindfulness, patients learn how to remove “bad” and “good” labels from their emotions. Then, they can tackle their emotions open-mindedly and nonjudgmentally. Being mindful helps them take a mental inventory of their actions too. Because of that, they can be present during each choice that they make.

Distress Tolerance

Another important aspect of DBT for addiction is distress tolerance. Both during and after treatment, people with addiction face distressing situations. Through DBT, they learn to accept the pain of their emotions that they experience. They learn that it’s a natural part of life and that they don’t need drugs to cope. With distress tolerance training, they’re less likely to relapse.

Interpersonal Effectiveness

Through DBT, people learn about the importance of interpersonal response patterns. These are certain patterns that appear when they deal with interpersonal conflicts. Through the use of coping skills, they learn how to deal with these conflicts in healthy ways.

Emotion Regulation

As the name implies, emotion regulation deals with handling emotions in healthy ways. Using specific skills that they learn during therapy, individuals gain the tools that they need to regulate their emotions. As a result, they can make better choices in the heat of conflicts. Part of this process involves:

  • Identifying triggers that change emotions.
  • Identifying emotions.
  • Increasing events that lead to positive emotional outcomes.
  • Being mindful of current emotions.
  • Taking appropriate action to regulate mood.
  • Using distress tolerance techniques.

How Does DBT Treat Substance Abuse?

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DBT is helpful in treating substance abuse in a couple of ways. First, it helps people regulate emotions better. Typically, certain events and situations can trigger negative emotions that may lead to relapse after treatment. Thankfully, DBT for substance abuse helps people keep these emotions in check to avoid relapse.

Second, DBT helps people with more than just substance abuse problems. It’s not uncommon for other mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression, to occur alongside addiction. Dual-diagnosis treatment with DBT can address these issues.

Keep in mind that simply treating addiction without treating underlying mental disorders is unhealthy. Often, mental issues are the cause of addiction or at least play a factor in its development. Failure to deal with them will just cause more issues down the line.

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What Is a DBT Session Like?

All rehab and detox centers handle DBT sessions slightly differently. Despite that, most sessions start with mindfulness meditation. From there, the sessions move into a mindfulness practice. The practice sessions typically differ from one week to the next. While some of the activities occur on an individual basis, others occur in a group setting.

Typically, people receive homework after each session. Don’t worry, though. This homework isn’t academic. It’s more therapeutic in nature. Generally, it revolves around practicing the techniques that they learn during DBT sessions.

Keep in mind that DBT is a type of talk therapy, so there’s a lot of talking and sharing of emotions and feelings during typical sessions. The more that people open up to their therapists, the more that they’ll get out of the treatment.

In addition, remember that DBT is more of a long-term treatment than CBT. While people will notice some of the benefits of DBT right away, other benefits won’t become apparent until after they practice the skills that they learn. The more that they practice the techniques, the more substantial the benefits that they’ll experience.

Who Can Benefit From DBT?

DBT and substance abuse treatment go hand in hand. People who suffer from drug abuse problems can benefit. Likewise, DBT is a great option for anyone who suffers from a mental health condition.

Since DBT is an evidence-based treatment, anyone who wants an effective and proven method to deal with addiction should consider it. Like any type of treatment, though, DBT is only effective if they put in the work.

Keep in mind that DBT has proved effective in both men and women. Also, it works well for treating substance abuse in people of all ages. Therefore, there’s no reason not to give it a try.

Let Chapel Hill Detox Teach You How to End Substance Abuse

At Chapel Hill Detox, we believe that you hold the power to end your substance abuse problem. You simply have to know how to unlock this power. With our guidance, you can get the tools that you need to take control of your life again.

Unlike other treatment centers, we understand that detox is the first step toward overcoming addiction. That’s why we proudly offer inpatient detox services. We also provide a variety of therapy programs, including CBT and DBT for substance abuse. Our mission is to set you on the right path.

Don’t wait any longer to get the help that you need. Contact us to learn more about our detox and inpatient programs.