Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for Addiction Treatment

One of the most important things an individual can do when seeking therapy for substance use disorder is talk with a professional who can help determine which addiction therapy types may be best suited for their needs. Of the various evidence-based therapy types, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) for addiction may be an option in certain circumstances.

This page will cover how dialectical behavior therapy works, the skills patients and therapists learn through using DBT, and how it may be used to help patients who struggle with addiction.

What Is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)?

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a type of cognitive behavioral psychotherapy that was specifically developed to better treat individuals with severe borderline personality disorder (BPD).1,2

In instances of BPD with a co-occurring substance use disorder, the use of a modified version of DBT (“DBT-S”) has been shown to help manage:1,2

  • Stressful or painful affects.
  • Maladaptive cognition.
  • Self-injurious behavior in individuals with BPD who use drugs or alcohol in an effort to cope with these thoughts and emotions.

DBT-S employs the pillars of dialectical behavior therapy with added focus on the patient’s struggle to reach abstinence, increasing the patient’s motivation to change their behavior and thinking, and strengthening the therapist’s skills and abilities to connect with “easily lost” patients.1

It can be difficult to connect and communicate with patients who have BPD and a substance use disorder; some of these patients might even leave therapy after a short period of time because they can’t or won’t change their thinking patterns.

DBT-S helps therapists meet their patients where they are, accept the patient for their faults, and help the patient accept themselves through changing mindsets and skills. It also works to help the patient grow their motivation for change.

What Does DBT Treat?

While dialectical behavior therapy was originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder, it can also be beneficial for people who are experiencing several other mental health conditions and related problems, including:3

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Depressive disorders.
  • Substance use disorders.
  • Those at-risk for suicide, who are suicidal, and those who engage in self-harm.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy Techniques

Dialectical behavior therapy combines numerous cognitive-behavioral approaches, known as cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT, including contingency management and exposure therapy. Therapists commonly use techniques of CBT as part of addiction treatment.

Through DBT, therapists are able to show their patients the inconsistencies in their behavior vs. responses to standard approaches to therapy—“dialectical,” in short, means opposing forces—and help them work toward both acceptance and change in their behavior and thinking. Thus, the major focus of DBT is to bring together opposing beliefs, behaviors, or styles of interacting in such a way that makes these opposites functional.2

It can help patients experience a gradual transformation, continually working on creating this balance. Once patients find that balance, they can develop the coping skills needed to combat the symptoms of their illness that are most disabling.2

DBT-S specifically promotes cessation from and abstinence of substances. A combination of off-site counseling, attachment strategies, attempting to lower the risk or time spent of relapsing, and spending time locating patients who miss therapy sessions exemplify this dialectical abstinence approach.2

The dialectical behavior therapy techniques used focus on 5 functions:4

  • Function #1: Enhancing capabilities. DBT is used to improve a person’s life skills, including but not limited to emotional regulation, practicing mindfulness strategies, and enhancing distress tolerance skills.
  • Function #2: Generalizing capabilities. The skills learned in therapy must transfer to a person’s daily life for therapy to be deemed successful. Therefore, there is a practical application of new or modified skills, often addressed through homework assignments from the therapist.
  • Function #3: Improving motivation and reducing dysfunctional behaviors. This function may be worked on during individual therapy where a person can recognize behaviors that are inconsistent with recovery and maintaining abstinence and commit to behavior change.
  • Function #4: Enhancing and maintaining therapist capabilities and motivation. When DBT is used for patients with borderline personality disorder, it can be both highly rewarding and stimulating for the clinician as well as extremely taxing due to crisis and behaviors that can interfere with therapy. As such, DBT therapists meet once a week to offer each other encouragement and problem-solve as a team.
  • Function #5: Structuring the environment. Another function of DBT involves structuring the environment in a way that promotes positive behavior and progress. The therapist does this for the therapy environment and helps the patient do this in their environments outside of therapy. This may include adjusting who the patient surrounds themself with outside of therapy.

Biosocial theory is another component of DBT for addiction. It details that mental and personality disorders caused by environmental factors influence personality traits that are biologically determined.4

Behavioral Skills Taught in DBT

In dialectical behavior therapy, therapists focus on teaching four sets of behavioral skills:4

  • Mindfulness.
  • Distress tolerance.
  • Interpersonal effectiveness.
  • Emotion regulation.

Mindfulness helps patients focus on the present and remain fully aware of each moment. Patients working on mindfulness skills learn how to participate fully in their present activity and to observe their current experience in a nonjudgmental way.4

Through distress tolerance, individuals learn how to tolerate pain rather than attempt to change it. Distress tolerance is especially important for individuals who are struggling with substance abuse because it helps them accept uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, cravings, and triggers rather than attempt to eliminate those symptoms by using again.4

Interpersonal effectiveness refers to the skills that individuals need in order to ask for what they want and to decline what they do not want while maintaining healthy relationships with others.4

Emotional regulation skills help patients learn how to identify and address emotions they want to change.4

Benefits of DBT for Addiction Treatment

For someone with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and co-occurring substance use disorder (SUD), DBT modified for patients with SUD (DBT-S) may help a patient accept who they are and change their thinking patterns to guide them to reach a healthier, more positive approach to life that doesn’t include using drugs or misusing alcohol.

The foremost goal of DBT-S is immediate cessation of the substance, and an understanding that should relapse occur, it doesn’t mean that the patient cannot reach sustained sobriety in the future.2

With DBT-S for addiction, patients are taught additional new behaviors, including how to:2

  • Avoid returning to substance use. This could comprise of ending contact with people who encourage or use those substances or throwing away drug paraphernalia.
  • Reduce and get rid of behaviors that lead the patient back to drug use. This could include helping the patient change their mindset from using drugs is inevitable to teaching that even if relapses occur, sobriety and recovery are possible.
  • Encourage the patient to build a healthy community of support around them, such as reconnecting with old friends or developing new friends that do not abuse substances.

As well as abstinence from drugs or alcohol, DBT-S also focuses on planning ahead by giving patients the tools and skills to deal with high-risk situations that might have once led them to relapse.2

Addiction Treatment & Therapy in Mississippi

It’s never too late to reach out for help. If you or someone you love is struggling with the devastating effects of addiction and are unsure of where to turn, call us today at . Oxford Treatment Center, American Addiction Centers’ drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Mississippi, is ready to help you get the treatment you need.

By calling us, you will be connected with a rehab admissions navigator who can discuss several things with you, including what levels of addiction treatment are available, rehab payment options, and drug and alcohol rehab insurance coverage.

You can even get started on your recovery right now by verifying your insurance through our secure .


Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.

You aren't alone. You deserve to get help.
Oxford is located in Etta, Mississippi, which is easily accessible from Memphis and Birmingham.
Take your next step toward recovery:
✔ learn more about our addiction treatment programs.
✔ see how popular insurance providers such as Aetna or Humana offer coverage for rehab.
view photos of our facility.