Can You Treat Addiction With Dialectical Behavioral Therapy?

Dialectical behavioral therapy is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy used at Vista Taos to help people battle addiction and achieve recovery.  

What is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy?

In recent years, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) has become a widely used practice for a diverse array of psychological disorders.

Recent studies have shown that DBT can reduce suicidal behavior by nearly 50%.1 Its utilization in outpatient settings has also resulted in a 70% decrease in hospitalizations among individuals with severe mental health conditions.2

As the demand for evidence-based treatments rises, empirical support for the efficacy of DBT has increased its use.
dialectical behavioral therapy

Defining Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

Dialectical behavioral therapy is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy. It was initially developed in the late 1980s as a treatment for individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD). DBT was found to be particularly effective for those exhibiting self-harm behaviors and suicidal tendencies.3

Over time, however, the applicability of DBT has expanded to treat a range of other disorders, such as:
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
Dialectical behavioral therapy combines standard cognitive-behavioral techniques with concepts derived from Zen Buddhism, such as mindfulness and acceptance.

What Does “Dialectical” Mean?

Within the context of DBT, the term “dialectical” refers to the process of synthesizing opposing forces or viewpoints. The goal is to arrive at a more balanced, holistic understanding or action.

This concept emphasizes the coexistence of seemingly contradictory elements, such as acceptance and change. In dialectical behavioral therapy, individuals are taught to accept themselves as they are. They also learn to recognize the need for change.
By holding these seemingly contradictory truths together, individuals can escape black-and-white thinking. This way, they can move toward a better understanding of themselves and their situations.

How Is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Helpful?

Dialectics promotes personal growth and change by challenging rigid patterns of thought. This helps individuals navigate emotional extremes. Dialectics aims to foster a space where they can accept their current reality while working toward a better future.
This balance of acceptance and proactive change is essential in DBT’s approach to improving:
  • Emotional regulation
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Overall mental well-being

What Are the Primary Components of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy?

Dialectical behavioral therapy is effective due to several key components. These include:

Skills Training

DBT incorporates four primary skill modules. These are designed to address specific challenges and contribute to overall emotional well-being. These modules equip individuals with practical tools to navigate emotional challenges and distressing situations more effectively.


Mindfulness in DBT promotes living in the present moment, and observing thoughts and feelings without judgment. By cultivating awareness, individuals can detach from overly reactive patterns.
This helps them to make choices more consciously rather than being driven by automatic or learned responses. With a heightened sense of self-awareness, mindfulness can lay the foundation for other skills.

Emotion Regulation

This module teaches techniques to identify and label emotions. This increases an individual’s understanding of how their feelings influence their thoughts and behaviors.
By recognizing emotional risks and understanding the natural progression of emotions, individuals can develop strategies to prevent unwanted emotional responses or to alter them once they occur.

Distress Tolerance

Life inevitably brings about distressing situations, and not all pain can be avoided or changed immediately. Distress tolerance skills equip individuals with the tools to endure and cope with these moments without resorting to maladaptive behaviors.
Instead of impulsively reacting or seeking to numb oneself, techniques like self-soothing, distraction, and radical acceptance are employed to navigate difficult situations and feelings more constructively.

Interpersonal Effectiveness

Healthy relationships are central to emotional well-being. DBT addresses challenges in communication, assertiveness, and self-respect in relationships.
Skills taught include:
  • How to express one’s needs and boundaries effectively
  • How to listen actively
  • How to negotiate in conflicts 
These skills contribute to more fulfilling relationships, reduced interpersonal conflicts, and a sense of social connectedness. This can be a buffer against various emotional challenges.

Phone Coaching

Clients can call their therapist between sessions for guidance on using skills in real-life situations.

Therapist Consultation Teams

Therapists meet regularly with a team of colleagues to discuss cases, get support, and ensure they are providing the best care possible.

How Does Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Differ from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy?

Dialectical behavioral therapy stands distinct from traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy in several key ways, despite sharing a foundational emphasis on cognition and behavior. Depending on the needs of the individual, DBT or CBT may be used. These distinctions will be detailed below.

Teaching Acceptance

Dialectical behavioral therapy significantly emphasizes the dialectical process, striving to balance acceptance with the need for change. This differs from traditional CBT which predominantly emphasizes change-oriented strategies.

Group Skills Training

DBT includes structured group skills training as a fundamental component. This covers areas like emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness. This group element is often not as pronounced in standard CBT.

Phone Coaching

Finally, the inclusion of phone coaching in DBT allows clients to access real-time support and guidance. This ensures the skills they learn are applied effectively in their day-to-day challenges. This level of accessibility to therapists outside scheduled sessions is typically absent in traditional CBT.

How Can Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Help With Addiction Recovery?

Dialectical behavioral therapy has proven to be an effective therapeutic approach for those struggling with addiction. Furthermore, DBT’s approach to treating addiction can be seen as comprehensive and holistic.
DBT strives to address the emotional and psychological aspects that are often overlooked or inadequately addressed in traditional addiction treatments. DBT’s foundational elements are particularly relevant in addiction recovery:
  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness practices instill a heightened sense of awareness, allowing individuals to recognize cravings and emotional states that may contribute to substance use. By fostering this self-awareness, individuals can make more informed decisions and reduce impulsive behaviors associated with drug and alcohol use
  • Distress tolerance: Distress tolerance skills equip individuals with strategies to cope with the discomfort and urges that might arise during moments of craving or when faced with situations that previously led to substance use.
  • Emotion regulation: Moreover, emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness skills in DBT further support the recovery journey by addressing underlying emotional imbalances and helping individuals establish healthier relationships.

Can Dialectic Behavioral Therapy Be Utilized Alongside Other Therapies in Addiction Treatment?

While DBT is useful for addiction treatment by itself, it is often utilized alongside other treatment options as well. This helps to provide a comprehensive and holistic approach to recovery. 

Some of the types of therapy that DBT is commonly utilized alongside during addiction treatment include:

Individual Therapy

DBT often includes individual therapy sessions. This is where an individual works one-on-one with a therapist to address specific challenges related to addiction, coping skills, and behavior change.

Group Therapy

DBT typically includes group therapy sessions where individuals can learn and practice various skills alongside others who struggle with addiction. These group sessions provide a supportive environment for individuals to share their experiences and receive feedback from both peers and therapists.

Substance Use Disorder Counseling

DBT can be integrated with substance use disorder counseling. This type of therapy focuses specifically on addressing the challenges and issues related to addiction.
This may involve exploring the underlying causes of addiction, developing strategies to resist cravings, and finding healthier ways to cope with stressors.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational Interviewing is a therapeutic approach that aims to help individuals explore and resolve ambivalence about making positive changes. It can be combined with DBT to enhance an individual’s motivation to engage in the recovery process and make lasting changes.

12-Step Programs

While not a form of therapy, 12-step programs are often used in addiction treatment. DBT skills can complement the principles of these programs, providing individuals with additional tools for managing emotions, interpersonal challenges, and distress.

Family Therapy

In cases where family dynamics play a significant role in the addiction, family therapy can be integrated with DBT. This helps address communication patterns, conflicts, and support systems within the family.
It’s important to note that the specific combination of therapies will depend on an individual’s unique needs, the severity of their addiction, and any co-occurring mental health issues. A treatment plan is typically tailored to address these specific factors and provide the best possible support for recovery.

Who Can Benefit from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy?

Dialectical behavioral therapy was originally developed to treat individuals with BPD. However, since its inception, the applications of DBT have expanded significantly.
Today, DBT is considered effective for a range of conditions, including:

Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors

Regardless of whether an individual has BPD, those who struggle with suicidal ideation or have a history of suicide attempts can benefit from dialectical behavioral therapy.

Self-Harming Behaviors

This includes actions like cutting, burning, or other forms of self-injury. DBT offers skills to manage distressing emotions without resorting to self-destructive behaviors.4

Substance Use Disorders

Dialectical behavioral therapy can be adapted to treat individuals with addiction struggles. The skills taught in DBT, particularly distress tolerance and emotion regulation, can help individuals cope with cravings and prevent relapse.5

Eating Disorders

Individuals with eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder can benefit from dialectical behavioral therapy. DBT can help these individuals in developing healthier coping mechanisms and improving self-image.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

While dialectical behavioral therapy isn’t the primary treatment for PTSD, its skills can complement other therapeutic approaches by helping individuals manage traumatic risks and emotional extremes.

Mood Disorders

While primarily designed for personality disorders, dialectical behavioral therapy can be beneficial for individuals with conditions like depression or bipolar disorder. This is especially true when these conditions coexist with other issues like self-harm or substance use disorder.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Some individuals with ADHD, especially those who struggle with emotional dysregulation, may find dialectical behavioral therapy skills helpful. This can help them in managing impulsive behaviors and mood swings.

Chronic Irritability or Anger

DBT can be useful for individuals who have difficulty managing anger or who experience frequent and intense episodes of irritability.

Interpersonal Difficulties

Individuals who consistently face challenges in forming or maintaining relationships, regardless of a formal diagnosis, might benefit from the interpersonal effectiveness skills taught in dialectical behavioral therapy.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Comprehensive Mental Health or Addiction Support

Dialectical behavioral therapy can be effectively integrated into a comprehensive treatment plan for individuals seeking mental health or addiction support in several other ways.
This includes:

Pharmacological Interventions

While dialectical behavioral therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach, medication can sometimes be a beneficial adjunct, especially for disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety.

Also, DBT’s emphasis on mindfulness and self-awareness can aid individuals in monitoring medication effects and ensuring that they follow through with taking medications.

Family Involvement

Family therapy or educational sessions can be integrated into a treatment plan to help family members understand DBT principles. This not only equips them with supportive strategies but also fosters a more supportive home environment.

Treatment of Co-Occurring Disorders

Many individuals with addiction also have co-occurring mental health disorders. DBT can be integrated into a dual diagnosis treatment program. This is where individuals receive support for both addiction and other mental health challenges simultaneously.

Aftercare and Alumni Programs

After completing a structured treatment program, individuals can benefit from ongoing DBT skills groups or refresher courses as part of aftercare. This helps to reinforce skills and maintain progress in recovery.

Coordination with Other Healthcare Professionals

A comprehensive treatment plan often involves various professionals, including psychiatrists, primary care providers, nutritionists, and others. Coordination among these professionals ensures that the DBT approach is woven seamlessly into the broader scheme of an individual’s care.
By offering a multi-faceted approach that addresses both behavioral and emotional challenges, DBT can enhance the effectiveness and outcomes of treatment plans for a variety of mental health and addiction issues.
dialectical behavioral therapy

Why Choose Vista Taos for Dialectical Behavioral Therapy?

Navigating the intricacies of mental health challenges and addiction can be overwhelming. But with the right support, the journey toward well-being becomes more achievable.
By recognizing the interconnectedness of mental health and addiction, our team at Vista Taos provides a safe and nurturing environment where individuals can embark on a transformative journey of self-discovery and recovery.

What We Offer

We understand that every individual’s journey toward healing is unique, which is why our dedicated team of compassionate professionals offers tailored expert care.
By integrating dialectical behavioral therapy into our comprehensive array of therapeutic modalities, we empower our clients with a versatile set of skills to navigate life’s challenges more effectively.

This ensures that each person receives the personalized guidance and support they require on their path to recovery.

Start Your Journey Today

If you’re ready to start your journey, contact our Vista Taos team today to learn more about how DBT can pave the way for a brighter, balanced future.

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Ready to Renew Your Life and Well-Being?

Reach out to Vista Taos Renewal Center today and let us guide you toward sustainable recovery. We will help you heal from the addictions and substance use challenges that hinder you from leading your most fulfilled life through personalized, whole-person treatment.