How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Effectively Treat Eating Disorders
From our friends at Timberline Knolls
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is an evidence-based psychotherapy that teaches people effective coping skills to help them live happier, more fulfilling lives. Through DBT, individuals can learn that it’s possible to simultaneously accept where they are on their recovery journeys and work toward positive change. The unique combination of these seemingly opposite concepts can help people who are battling an array of mental health disorders find healing.
While it was originally created for the treatment of borderline personality disorder, DBT has since been adapted to address a range of other behavioral health concerns, including eating disorders. Because everyone has different needs and life experiences, DBT therapists work with each person to identify the behaviors they would like to decrease as well as the ones they would like to enhance.
People who participate in DBT attend group sessions where they can learn to observe and restructure unhealthy behaviors by strengthening four core skills: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. They may also benefit from receiving individual therapy, telephone coaching, case management services, and comprehensive support from a consultation team. Generally, DBT programs last six months to a year, though the actual length of time a person spends in therapy depends on the severity of their symptoms and their treatment goals.
The Benefits of DBT Skills for Eating Disorder Recovery
Oftentimes people who are struggling with eating disorders develop harmful, disordered behaviors to deal with intense emotions. In these cases, DBT can be a beneficial approach for helping individuals learn alternative skills for coping with life’s stressors in a productive way. By focusing on the four categories of DBT, people can develop the ability to accept the challenges they are facing and make strides toward changing them.
Mindfulness in its simplest terms is a mental state of being aware. This guiding principle of DBT is paramount in helping people begin to develop acceptance. Mindfulness therapy encourages a person to be present in each moment so that they can observe their thoughts and emotions as well as their surroundings in a nonjudgmental manner. For someone who is battling an eating disorder, practicing mindfulness can help them notice negative thoughts and slow down emotional reactivity.
The threshold for the amount of discomfort a person can endure without becoming overwhelmed is known as distress tolerance. This level can vary from one person to another and may change depending on the situation. While it’s normal for a person’s tolerance for stress to fluctuate, those who have consistently low levels of distress tolerance may find it nearly impossible to cope with hardship. A person’s inability to manage stress may cause them to turn to harmful coping mechanisms to deal with emotional suffering. For this reason, enhancing distress tolerance can help those who have eating disorders accept uncomfortable situations for what they are and let them go so that they can move forward.
Emotion regulation skills can help a person manage intense emotions in a healthy way. Through this DBT competency, a person can learn to recognize their emotions and label them without judgment. For someone who has an eating disorder, emotion regulation can help them understand how their feelings affect their behaviors as well as pinpoint triggering situations so that they can avoid them. By developing this skill, they can decrease their susceptibility to intense emotions and learn how to deal with them when they do arise.
Intense emotions can impact a person’s ability to maintain healthy relationships. Through this module, individuals can work toward improving connections with loved ones by learning how to resolve conflict, actively listen, and articulate their needs. This core skill empowers people to ask for what they want confidently to promote self-respect. By learning to communicate clearly and effectively, a person who is facing behavioral health challenges can strengthen relationships and reduce feelings of resentment.
Overall, DBT can help people who have eating disorders avoid thinking about challenges in a black-or-white manner by encouraging them to recognize and accept the complexities of life. Through therapy, they can benefit from learning how to identify triggers, implement mindful eating practices, and improve their reactions to painful emotions. DBT can allow them to achieve better functioning on a day-to-day basis by helping them manage emotional turmoil and increase their problem-solving abilities.