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Dialectical Behavior Therapy Techniques

A man experiencing dialectical behavior therapy techniques

Society tends to label females as “too sensitive.” At the same time, males learn that showing emotions is a sign of weakness. Popular media reinforces this message by portraying emotional males as a joke and emotional females as annoying. Consequently, people are left confused and uninformed about how to express and cope with difficult emotions like anger, pain, and sadness. This can lead to feelings of shame, embarrassment, and being overwhelmed by emotions. People may resort to self-harm or unhealthy coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol. Unfortunately, this only perpetuates the problem, as the underlying emotional wounds remain unaddressed. Fortunately, dialectical behavior therapy techniques can address the issue.

At Apex Recovery San Diego, our trained clinical staff utilize dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT, a behavioral therapy supported by evidence-based programs for the treatment of substance use, works in providing insight into emotions and educating people on how to live with their emotions to allow for more manageable, functional lives.

DBT Skills

Throughout a lifetime, everyone experiences difficult emotions. A mother experiences anxiety about her son driving for the first time; a father feels sadness about his daughter going off to college; a girlfriend feels anger upon finding out her boyfriend cheated, and a young teen feels pain and grief upon the death of his grandmother. Emotions are inevitable, and while they may often feel very painful or uncomfortable, learning to express and cope with them effectively is crucial.

DBT is comprised of four important coping skills:

  • Distress tolerance
  • Mindfulness
  • Emotion regulation
  • Interpersonal effectiveness

When used effectively, these skills can prevent emotional paralysis and can promote the likelihood of individuals becoming functional members of society. It’s important to note that these skills cannot just be read and forgotten. Instead, they have to be applied behaviorally. Let’s take a deeper look into each one of these skills to give you a preview of the techniques the therapists at Apex Recovery San Diego utilize to teach and support our clients.

Distress Tolerance

Emotions can affect people differently. Many emotions will be minor while others will feel more intense and overwhelming. Some emotions are easier to predict, and others might feel out of the blue. As explained earlier, a majority of people handle their emotions in unhelpful and unhealthy ways. Distress tolerance skills are the healthier alternative and prevent further pain and suffering. They are organized into categories of distraction and relaxation.


DBT identifies distraction techniques as a way to temporarily pause strong emotions and create space for calmer decision-making. Distraction is not about long-term avoidance. Instead, it’s about setting aside distressing situations. At a later time, it will be easier to process and resolve the emotions involved.

DBT introduces various distraction techniques and skills to try. For example, a young male struggling with addiction and stress learns healthier alternatives like going for a walk, watching the sunset, or calling a friend. Engaging in these activities reduces anxiety and allows for clearer thinking and prioritization. Instead of resorting to harmful behaviors, he addresses the original problem that led to his anxiety.

Self-Soothing or Relaxation Techniques

Along with distraction techniques, DBT emphasizes the importance of self-soothing for distress tolerance. Self-soothing can be done using the senses, promoting relaxation of the body and mind. Imagine a luxurious spa experience: soft lighting, scented candles, calming music, warm towels, and a soothing massage. To top off the experience, cucumber-infused water offers a pleasant taste. By soothing all the senses, it becomes impossible to leave the spa feeling upset. This concept applies to daily life and helps manage overwhelming stressors, preventing substance abuse.

For instance, a young woman who struggles with alcohol abuse used to turn to alcohol to avoid feelings of sadness and anger after arguments. However, after completing treatment at Apex Recovery San Diego, she learned new coping strategies. Instead of reaching for alcohol, she now soothes herself with candles, painting, and calming music. This allows her to handle conflicts, address her emotions, and improve her relationships.


Mindfulness is a crucial skill in DBT. It’s a form of meditation that brings non-judgmental awareness to the present moment. It’s useful for reducing anxiety and depression while promoting relaxation. Moreover, mindfulness helps people focus on the present and better understand their thoughts and experiences.

Some find mindfulness challenging due to the time and concentration it requires. Fortunately, DBT introduces various exercises to help beginners. People often dwell on the past or worry about the future, both of which are beyond their control and can lead to overwhelming emotions. Mindfulness slows down thought processes, focusing on the one thing we can control—the present moment. It increases awareness and engages the five senses.

To illustrate, let’s discuss a young woman struggling with substance use and anxiety. She grew up in a tumultuous family and felt pressure to excel in all areas of life. Overworked and overwhelmed, she lacked healthy stress management skills and turned to substances. Through DBT and mindfulness techniques, she learned to cope without jeopardizing her sobriety. During a panic attack, she practiced deep breathing and focused on the present, finding peace and clarity to rearrange her schedule.

Emotion Regulation

Distress tolerance, mindfulness, and emotion regulation are important skills in DBT. Emotions vary in intensity and can feel overwhelming if not handled effectively. Humans experience primary emotions as initial reactions, like sadness or happiness, and secondary emotions as responses to those reactions, like anger or guilt.

It’s crucial to bring awareness to emotions, control them, and make healthy decisions. DBT introduces nine emotion regulation skills, such as recognizing emotions and increasing positive emotions. These skills help manage emotions and understand their origin and effects. Treatment and therapy can provide insight and coping skills for individuals struggling with emotions and accompanying behaviors.

Interpersonal Effectiveness

The fourth DBT skill is interpersonal effectiveness, which combines social, communication, and negotiation skills. Relationships, whether familial, amicable, working, or romantic, play a significant role in our lives and impact our moods. Effective communication promotes positive emotions, so it’s important to be aware of these interpersonal skills.

We achieve interpersonal effectiveness through engaging questions, exercises, and logs that help identify unhelpful patterns and teach better communication. These skills address topics like mindful attention, passive/aggressive behavior, and obstacles to effective relationships. They develop assertiveness, boundaries, and self-advocacy.

Consider a man in his mid-40s seeking treatment for anger and substance dependence. Before treatment, he frequently fought with his wife due to work-related stress. His relationships with his children and friends suffered. Through therapy, he learned to communicate emotions without explosive anger, improving his relationship with his wife. He actively listened and asked questions, advocating for himself by setting boundaries. He reduced stress at work and enrolled in couples therapy, resulting in improved communication, happiness, and intimacy.

Emotions are natural responses to experiences. DBT therapy educates on emotions and provides helpful coping techniques to prevent self-destructive behaviors like self-mutilation, eating disorders, and substance abuse.

Get the Help You Need Today

At Apex Recovery, with the help of our trained clinical staff, you will learn how to implement dialectical behavioral therapy techniques as you embark on the journey with a DBT therapist. We believe that successful treatment is aimed toward not only stopping the use of drugs and alcohol but also through addressing the underlying emotional wounds our clients may have been too afraid or unaware of to address. Contact Apex Recovery today at (877) 881-2689 to begin your recovery journey.

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