DBT Can Help Feelings Be Less Scary

Emotions can be a scary and overwhelming thing, especially if you have not been offered support and guidance on how to navigate them. A common trap people fall into is thinking that ignoring their feelings will be the solution and make them go away. The reality is that most mental health and addiction issues are exacerbated by this approach as ignoring simply creates stuffing, build up, and lead to flooding, or emotional overwhelm. Think of the child tantruming in the store, someone cutting themselves, or someone using drugs or alcohol to help them escape and ‘deal with’ their feelings. All of these strategies, while well-intentioned, do not deal with the feelings and add to the avoidance, which leads to further overwhelm. People are hurting and mishandling their emotions every day. So what can help?

A specific type of therapy, called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) was pioneered by Marsha Linehan in the 1970’s. The treatment was developed to help support those who were chronically experiencing suicidal ideation as well as those dealing with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). DBT pulls some elements from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which was a treatment established prior, primarily for the treatment of Mood and Anxiety Disorders but which has gone on to be an established, evidence-based treatment for a number of different conditions.

One of the powerful aspects of DBT is that, rather than looking at just how thoughts influence our feelings and behavior like CBT, it starts with the premise that we must explore our feelings and learn how to hold space for multiple, even seemingly competing, feelings at the same time and discussing things logically and rationally, which is a perspective that can be diminished when people are flooded by waves of intense emotion.

DBT proposes using four different aspects to navigate the world of emotions differently:

1) Mindfulness. Within DBT is the core idea that we must be focused and grounded in the present in order to navigate our emotional world. We have all heard of mindfulness, it is somewhat of a buzz word these days, but what does it really mean? It is training our brains to be focused on the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and experiences around us at that moment. If you think about all of the times where you felt the most upset in your life, chances are you were living in a time other than now. You were thinking about the past and feeling regret and remorse or maybe you were thinking about the future and how awful things were going to be. Either way, you likely weren’t living in this moment because, if you were, the intensity of our experience lessens and we can take things one step at a time. DBT offers a number of skills and strategies to help people practice and apply mindfulness in their daily lives and, like a muscle, you don’t just want to use it when you’re in distress. Ideally, mindfulness is a regular practice that can add value to your every day, as well as when the going gets tough.

2) Acceptance. Another difficult concept and action for human beings: Acceptance. In DBT, we are not only trying to foster acceptance of the reality of a situation, but of the reality of our feelings too. Again, ignoring and avoiding feelings does not help people move through them and so facing them with realism is an important tool. Other therapeutic modalities have expanded on this idea of acceptance and are based on it, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Acceptance is such a powerful part of navigating through tough moments as we can acknowledge that things are hard, while then focusing on how we can support ourselves in moving through it. 

3) Distress Tolerance. Emotions can be distressing, there’s no doubt about that, and for those with certain mental health issues, that can accelerate this. Therefore, having ways to support yourself in accepting, being present, but also being able to move through moments to reduce the risk of self-harm and death is of the utmost importance. Most humans benefit from discomfort tolerance, and we do this a lot without even realizing it, and this is an amplification of that with the acknowledgement that distress does not lead to anything good and needs a safe place to defuse. How powerful to be able to de-escalate things for one self.

4) Emotional Regulation. Emotions can go all over the place. One moment we’re up, the next we’re down. Regulation is about stabilization. Being grounded means we are better able to be mindful, accept, and bring down our levels of distress.

DBT is a skills based therapy that can be brought into individual sessions and/or delivered in a group setting.

At Sana Psychological, DBT skills are a foundational part of sessions with many of our practitioners who find this a powerful therapeutic technique to empower and support yourself in your wellness journey. If you are interested in learning more or in booking an appointment for yourself, Click Here.

Sana Psychological is a mental health and addiction counselling practice located in Calgary, Alberta and offering services locally, provincially and nationally. Our team is comprised of passionate, empathetic and caring individuals with expertise in a variety of areas, including DBT, to support you and your family.