How DBT Helps with Managing Anxiety Disorders

These days over 18% of US adults are living with an anxiety disorder. For many people living with chronic anxiety, experiencing a daily, significant and ongoing sense of fear or anxiety can lead to restlessness, panic attacks, isolation, poor sleep, and physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, body aches, stomach pain, and more. These and a host of other symptoms can be debilitating and may significantly decrease the sufferer’s quality of life. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is usually the go-to solution for anxiety treatment. However, for some patients with persistent and unmanageable symptoms, the classic CBT focus on changing thoughts and behavioral patterns isn’t enough to establish significant breakthroughs. Part of the problem with utilizing CBT for anxiety disorders is that this type of therapy doesn’t offer an emphasis on acceptance - a key tenant of solving persistent anxiety and fear - and can instead become invalidating. 

This is where DBT has made a profound and notable difference in anxiety treatment. Dialectical Behavior Therapy focuses on acknowledging and supporting the patient’s reality, and on creating coping mechanisms rooted in mindfulness (living in the moment). Since most anxiety boils down to focusing on the future or on situations, obstacles, relationships, and factors outside of our control, DBT can make a significant difference through its use of acceptance-based behavior therapies (ABBTs).


How DBT Works 

DBT focuses on dialectical thinking - which essentially means the ability to embrace two ideas or truths that might seem contradictory to each other; in this case, the concept of acceptance and change. The ability to accept your reality and live in the moment, combined with the willingness to manifest change for the better, is the crux of DBT treatment. 

The DBT process covers a series of modules, including two that focus on acceptance, and two that focus on change: 

  • Mindfulness: learning to be fully aware and present in the moment
  • Distress Tolerance: discovering how to tolerate emotional pain in difficult situations, rather than fight it
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness: learning how to ask for what you want and establish boundaries while maintaining self-respect and healthy relationships with others
  • Emotion Regulation: discovering how to decrease susceptibility to painful emotions and purposefully change emotions that don’t serve you.

Individuals working through DBT treatment will spend time covering each module, and in some cases will re-work a module in its entirety, depending on the severity and specificity of their symptoms. 

Why DBT Helps with Anxiety 

More and more literature is coming out about the effectiveness of DBT for anxiety therapy. For many individuals with anxiety disorders, their anxiety can be linked directly to extreme fear along with escalated emotions that may or may not fit the seriousness of the situation. For instance, when there is no immediate threat to their life, but they live in fear of dying. DBT helps individuals work through skills related to emotional and cognitive coping, in order to improve emotional regulation and processing. For those struggling with anxiety, DBT can provide relief from intense feelings, help them to modify unhelpful behaviors, and reduce their overall symptoms. The end goal of DBT for anxiety is to help patients to manage the worries, ruminations, panic attacks, and other symptoms that can be crippling in everyday life. 

Treating anxiety symptoms through DBT is still processed within the traditional DBT modules of Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotional Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness.

  • Mindfulness: This module can help those struggling with anxiety to stay grounded and focused in their present reality. Staying mindful and present can help minimize stress and anxiety around circumstances and future worries. Meditation is a critical component of the mindfulness module, and this practice can be a pivotal tool for those suffering from panic attacks and the physical symptoms of anxiety such as heart racing episodes, sleep disorders, headaches, rapid breathing, nausea and more. 
  • Distress Tolerance: This module includes skills like Radical Acceptance, which helps patients to tolerate panic-inducing thoughts and ruminations. Rather than fighting reality and aggravating anxiety by avoiding negative situations, thoughts and feelings, Radical Acceptance teaches the transformative effect of understanding and accepting situations before creating change. Self-soothing skills are a significant part of the distress tolerance module, and are very beneficial for those suffering from ongoing anxiety. 
  • Emotional Regulation: This module can help mitigate the impact of mild or paralyzing anxiety (which can cause patients to miss out on life events, act out impulsively, or feel out of control) by developing coping skills that can stop unwanted emotions from starting, regulate or change emotions in the moment, and create a level of comfort with unavoidable emotions that can be a part of everyday life. 
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness: This module helps anxious patients to diminish their worries and fears around relationships and social interaction. The goal of interpersonal effectiveness is to teach the skill of asking for what you want, saying no to what you don’t, and creating healthy boundaries out of self-respect. For many individuals with anxiety, initiating boundary setting or saying “no” can trigger intense worry, fear, and avoidance, so this module is critical to helping them improve.

In summary, DBT treatment is an understandably powerful tool for those working through anxiety disorders and the daily challenges of living with anxiety. If you’re interested in pursuing DBT treatment for anxiety, you can join an online anxiety therapy group today and get started on your journey to a healthier and happier future. 


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