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How Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Can Help Young Adults in College and in Life

Est. reading time: 4 mins
Posted Under: Treatment Insights

Clinically Reviewed by: Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, LICSW

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With an abundance of evidence-based treatment models, it can be hard to know which one to choose, much less the distinct benefits of each option. Some treatment approaches are diagnosis-specific, whereas others tend to be more universal. In today’s blog post, we are breaking down Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a well-researched, evidence-based treatment modality that was originally designed to help clients with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). At The Dorm, we believe DBT is a powerful tool for all young adults, including those in college, regardless of diagnosis or severity of symptoms, to support them with the life skills necessary for success.

So what is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)?

DBT is an evidence-based mental health treatment that was designed to foster several critical life skills, including healthy coping mechanisms and tactics for maintaining lasting relationships. Marsha Linehan, renowned author and psychologist, developed DBT by combining principles of various efficacious psychosocial treatments for anxiety, depression, and social-emotional difficulties. She was inspired by dialectical philosophy, which allowed her to create an intervention where a therapist guides their client to achieve acceptance and change-oriented goals. Due to the high rates of suicidality in BPD and the clinical challenge in treating BPD, DBT was created to really target those hard-to-treat symptoms.

Who benefits most from DBT techniques?

While DBT is commonly and effectively used to treat Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), it is universally beneficial for a number of diagnoses, as the skills central to DBT therapy are important for overall intrapersonal and interpersonal functioning. At The Dorm, DBT is used to treat a range of mental health disorders, including eating disorders, substance use disorders, depression, anxiety, trauma, panic disorder, and anyone presenting with suicidality regardless of their diagnosis. 

86 percent of clients at The Dorm are multi-diagnostic, meaning they have more than one clinical diagnosis at the same time. DBT, then, offers a comprehensive treatment option for targeting symptoms that co-occur and often interfere with one another. For example, DBT skills can be very beneficial for reducing negative coping mechanisms – an idea that holds true regardless of the diagnosis or choice of coping mechanism.

There are four core tenets that make up DBT therapy skills.

Emotional regulation

This module is aimed at psychoeducation. Clients learn about emotions and gain skills for both problem solving and taking opposite action when maladaptive behaviors are present. Ultimately, emotional regulation helps clients to decrease avoidance of certain emotions or situations that could elicit an uncomfortable feeling by providing them with a sense of autonomy in choosing how they want to respond to situations. 

Mindfulness

This practice refers to being fully aware and in the present moment, which allows an individual to experience life (i.e. emotions, thoughts, bodily sensations) without judgment or reaction. Thanks to mindfulness, clients learn to look and use an observer perspective when examining their own cognition and emotions. This view allows them to see themselves as separate both from the external world and the self.

Interpersonal effectiveness

This part of DBT shows clients how to effectively act in situations. With increased interpersonal effectiveness, clients will ultimately reduce efforts that contribute to interpersonal avoidance. The result is an increase in interpersonal behavior that, when positively reinforced, contributes to enhanced interpersonal functioning. 

Distress tolerance

Distress tolerance encompasses crisis survival skills, including acceptance in situations that are outside of the client’s control, self-soothing, and adaptive distraction. Successful adaptation of these skills allow for “radical acceptance” and “willingness” to be flexible in uncomfortable situations. Additionally, there will likely be a reduction in self-destructive and risk-taking behaviors, such as self-injury and substance abuse.

At The Dorm, we believe that DBT is a social skill in and of itself.

Tina Bryant serves as a Senior Therapist and DBT Skills Group facilitator at The Dorm in Washington, D.C. She believes that “the results clients achieve from participating in DBT programming allows them to be effective people in relationships.” She adds, “Through emotion regulation, mindfulness, and distress tolerance, I find clients are able to achieve interpersonal effectiveness, a skill that carries throughout all areas of life.”

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Expanding on this thought, Renae Mittelmeier, also a Senior Therapist at The Dorm, provides some examples of how DBT can help clients to increase autonomy and effectiveness in real-world situations. She reveals that clients often note:

  • A reduction in people pleasing that is accompanied by an increase in assertiveness in relationships
  • Effective management of emotions, marked by reduced reactivity
  • Development of healthy hobbies that mitigate negative behaviors
  • The use of self-soothing techniques, like taking a warm shower or watching a funny movie, during times of stress 

Why DBT treatment is particularly impactful for young adults and college students.

Young adulthood, in general, is a time of social-emotional development where the use of psychosocial skills become increasingly pertinent. Having a toolbox of DBT skills can be helpful for any young adult in navigating developmental changes, such as leaving the home for the first time, entering new educational environments, being challenged by peers in different ways, and making new friends. 

Chief Clinical Officer at The Dorm, Amanda Fialk explains, “As mental health professionals, we want to see young adults mastering the psychosocial skills that make these transitions smooth. DBT certainly supports this process by helping to foster mindfulness in times of uncertainty, control over changing emotions, and management of temperament in distressing situations.”

In looking at the span of young adult development, the majority of a young person’s life involves school. While schools in the United States tend to be driven primarily by academics, a focus on aspects of social-emotional development could be beneficial in the college years. Many clients, while prepared academically for school, are under-prepared for the social-emotional elements of navigating a college campus. 

For this reason, The Dorm utilizes DBT programming as one of its core treatment modalities to help clients gain skills that allow them to navigate life with an effective toolbox.

For young adults and college students, DBT skills translate to everyday life in many ways, including:

  • Interacting with peers becomes much more effective in terms of communication and boundaries.
  • Managing school schedules and class deadlines becomes easier when difficult emotions are no longer amplified and interfering.
  • Individuals are able to focus more on class material, resulting in better academic outcomes.

Renae points out that “there are a ton of skills in DBT, which means there is something for everyone – something to suit each person’s style of interacting and preferences. Ultimately, the versatility of DBT is what makes it so effective.” 

In closing, Tina urges us to remember: “The heart of DBT is dialectics, meaning two things can be true at the same time. Your 20s are a very social and emotion-based time that comes with many simultaneous (and often contradictory) goals, feelings, and situations. DBT helps to polish one’s ability to successfully thrive in society as an independent adult.”

Seeking help and support? Contact our team to speak with a specialist.

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DBT Skills Support –  IOP Young Adult Treatment NYC

DBT Skill Support –  IOP Young Adult Treatment DC

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