how DBT can teach us to cope with painful emotions


All too often, we feel the need to bottle up our emotions and keep everything inside. But when those emotions become too overwhelming, we might fall back on unhealthy habits or behaviors like substance abuse to help us cope, jeopardizing our sobriety.

At Choice House, we use evidence-based techniques like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) to help our clients deal with painful emotions and prepare them for whatever comes their way. With DBT, you’ll learn new skills to better manage concerns like anger, depression, anxiety, mood swings and more to build and maintain a strong foundation for lasting recovery.

what is DBT?

DBT was originally developed by psychologist Marsha M. Linehan in the late 1980s to help individuals with borderline personality disorder. However, it has since been adapted to treat other mental health concerns as well, including depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

DBT is a type of therapy that focuses on building skills in four main areas: mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness. It teaches individuals how to identify and change negative thinking patterns and behaviors that lead to mental health symptoms and self-destructive behaviors.

In DBT, the term “dialectical” refers to the concept of balancing two opposing ideas or truths at the same time — acceptance and change. You’ll learn how to accept yourself as you are while also recognizing the need for change.

who can benefit from DBT?

DBT is typically recommended for people who struggle with chronic emotional dysregulation, impulsive behaviors and difficulty with interpersonal relationships. It may be particularly helpful for individuals who have been diagnosed with:

  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Trauma
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance abuse disorders

DBT has been proven effective in both individual and group therapy settings and can be customized to meet your unique needs.

difficult emotions DBT can help with

Some people turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with things like anxiety, depression or trauma. However, this can quickly lead to addiction and exacerbate underlying mental health concerns. If you struggle with substance abuse, DBT can help by teaching you how to regulate your emotions, manage stress and endure negative or distressing situations, reducing your reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms or behaviors.

Some of the difficult emotions that it can address include anxiety and depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, mood swings, anger, trauma and more.

anxiety & depression

Anxiety can be a debilitating and overwhelming emotion that negatively affects many areas of your life. DBT can be an effective treatment for anxiety disorders, as it teaches individuals how to manage their emotions and tolerate distressing situations. By learning these skills, you can improve your ability to cope with anxiety and reduce the impact it has on your daily life.

DBT also helps with depression by teaching you how to identify and challenge the cycle of negative thinking that may contribute to your symptoms. This involves practicing mindfulness skills and learning how to reframe distorted thoughts or beliefs in a more positive way.


If you use self-harm as a way to deal with overwhelming emotions, DBT can help you find a safer outlet for your pain by teaching you more effective coping strategies. You’ll learn techniques like journaling, mindfulness, visualization and how to distract yourself during stressful situations to get through them without resorting to harmful behaviors.

Other skills taught by DBT, such as distress tolerance and emotional regulation, also help to reduce the urge to engage in self-harm when faced with difficult emotions.


According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States among people aged 10-34. Men are at the greatest risk, with suicide rates 4 times higher than those of women.

DBT takes a compassionate and non-judgmental approach to understanding and preventing suicide. It recognizes that suicidal thoughts and behaviors are often a result of intense emotions and ineffective coping skills. In DBT, suicide is viewed as an effort to solve a problem (such as unbearable emotional pain) that feels impossible to tolerate or change.

DBT helps individuals to identify the function of suicidal behavior and find alternative ways to cope with distress. It emphasizes the importance of building a life worth living and encourages people to develop a strong sense of purpose and connection to others.

It also helps individuals create a detailed plan for managing suicidal thoughts or behaviors and provides them with skills and strategies for staying safe in times of crisis. A 2018 study found that DBT is effective at both preventing suicide attempts and self-harm.

mood swings

DBT can help you deal with mood swings by reducing your vulnerability to negative emotions. One of the core principles of DBT is emotional regulation, which can teach you how to identify and label your emotions and evaluate situations or events that trigger a strong reaction.

Emotional regulation skills also focus on identifying and changing patterns of negative thinking and behavior. This can help you learn to reframe negative thoughts, set goals for positive behavior and develop a plan for coping with the challenges or setbacks in life.


Often, anger is used to mask other difficult emotions like fear, guilt, shame or frustration. But instead of addressing these, some people lash out at others instead. If you struggle with anger management issues, DBT can help you regulate your emotions and improve your communication skills to avoid conflict and reduce aggressive behavior.

One way DBT can help you deal with anger is by teaching mindfulness techniques. Mindfulness is the practice of learning how to be present in the moment and accept your thoughts and feelings without judgment. By exercising mindfulness, you can learn to recognize, regulate and accept difficult emotions like anger or fear and express them in healthier ways.

DBT can also teach you how to effectively communicate your feelings and needs. This can be especially helpful in situations where anger may arise, as effective communication can help de-escalate tense situations and prevent further conflict.


Trauma is often associated with life-threatening experiences such as natural disasters, sexual assault or combat, but it can also be the result of anything that makes you feel unsafe and overwhelmed. Moreover, trauma can have a cumulative effect, meaning that the impact of multiple traumatic events can add up and lead to troubling symptoms. Some people turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the psychological distress it can cause.

DBT can be an effective therapy for individuals who have experienced trauma because it teaches skills for dealing with difficult feelings and developing healthier coping mechanisms. Trauma can have a profound impact on the ability to regulate emotions, but DBT uses specific techniques to help individuals process their trauma and build resilience. It can also reduce the impact of traumatic memories for an improved quality of life.

what to expect during DBT

DBT is not a quick fix for mental health or substance abuse concerns. Treatment programs usually require a long-term commitment of at least 6 months to help improve emotional regulation, distress tolerance, mindfulness and interpersonal effectiveness skills.

DBT typically involves both individual therapy and group skills training sessions. Individual therapy sessions are designed to address the unique needs of each individual, while group therapy focuses more on developing and practicing new behavioral skills.

DBT is a powerful therapeutic tool that can help us learn to regulate our emotions, manage our thoughts and maintain lasting recovery throughout life’s ups and downs. At Choice House in Boulder, Colorado, we incorporate DBT and other evidence-based techniques into our long-term treatment program to help men address the underlying factors that drive addictive behavior, such as the need to cope with particularly painful or difficult emotions. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Click here to contact us today or call our admissions office at 303-578-4975. You can also get in touch by emailing us at

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