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DBT Skills Part 1: Learning Emotional Management

As young people, we spend a lot of time being taught things. We go to school, driver’s ed, sports teams, sex ed, religious classes, classes about “morality”…we have people giving us information (good or bad) about nearly everything. And yet oddly enough, very rarely is “understanding emotions and emotional management” included in our education. Sure, we get it sideways through our parents and role models, but we don’t get a curriculum for appropriate ways to respond to our emotions. As young skeptics, we should both be questioning why this is and seeking resources to educate ourselves as best we can.

One of the few places that there is evidence based and comprehensive emotional education is in therapy (although not every form of therapy), which of course is generally assumed to be for people whose coping skills are already breaking down. Instead of waiting for things to go wrong, it might make more sense to give people the appropriate tools ahead of time. In that spirit, this series will pull from dialectical behavior therapy to look at a series of skills that can be used to help you deal with your emotions in a healthy way.

In this post, I’ll cover the background of DBT (which is the acronym I will use for dialectical behavior therapy from now on), give an overview of what the skills are, and provide an explanation of some of the underlying theories behind the therapy. Moving forward I’ll cover a new skill each week.

DBT was created by Marsha Linehan for treating borderline personality disorder. Currently it is only considered evidence based treatment for BPD, but it has been used effectively to treat chemical dependency, eating disorders, bipolar, depression, and other disorders.

DBT consists of an individual therapist and a skills group that teaches a variety of skills for 4 major areas: interpersonal effectiveness, mindfulness, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance. These are skills that should be effective for any human being, but tend to be things that people with BPD in particular struggle with. We’ll be focusing on these skills rather than on the elements of individual therapy. The approach is based in the biosocial theory of psychology, which suggests that we have predispositions towards certain mental illnesses, but that our environment is what precipitates an actual illness.

The aim of DBT is to help an individual find ways to be more effective at achieving the goals they’d like in their life. It promotes a dialect: the idea that two seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time. The main dialectic in DBT is that accepting the way things are now is the first step to changing things, although there are endless dialectics that come up in treatment.

Next week we’ll be starting with mindfulness! Onwards!

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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