DBT Treatment for Emotion Dysregulation

A person’s inability to control or regulate emotional responses to external stimuli is often referred to as emotional dysregulation. This article will focus on DBT treatment for Emotional Dysregualtion.  For the 3% of Americans who struggle with the effects of this mental health condition, daily occurrences of emotional dysregulation symptomatology often prove to be highly stressful both for the emotionally dysregulated individuals and for those around them.

Rather than appropriately managing difficult feelings during tense interactions and events, individuals exhibiting emotional dysregulation behaviors often exhibit problematic  responses. Emotional overreaction can include eruptions of anger, unreasonable accusations, crying, and/or passive-aggressive behaviors. Since these responses are often misunderstood by others, emotional dysregulation can have a detrimental impact on an individual’s ability to function in personal and professional relationships and may greatly impact their relationships.

Often triggered by family members, work colleagues, or significant others, emotional dysregulation is a prominent feature of specific types of personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), narcissistic personality, and histrionic personality disorder. Emotional dysregulation is also often present in those diagnosed with mood disorders such as depressive disorders and bipolar disorders. These mood disorders can also feature emotional hyperactivity or emotional overreactions to specific events and interpersonal interactions.

While there is no definitive cause of emotional dysregulation, research supports the hypothesis that many  individuals struggling with this mental health condition experienced some type of trauma during childhood or have been subject to invalidation by caregivers and significant others Chemical imbalances, brain injuries, and genetics have also been shown to contribute to the presence of emotion dysregulation.

Finding the most effective treatment for emotional dysregulation is critical for those coping on a daily basis with the challenges of the condition.. The use of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) in treating emotional dysregulation has demonstrated notable efficacy across multiple studies targeting populations who cannot control or regulate their emotional responses. Specifically designed to emphasize the management of appropriate emotional expression, DBT has become the gold standard for helping to alleviate the symptoms of emotional dysfunction among numerous populations.

Because DBT identifies emotion dysregulation as central to the impulsivity of BPD, and because DBT targets improved emotion regulation as a primary mechanism of change in those diagnosed with BPD, the use of DBT with individuals with BPD has showed marked success. In one study, researchers set out to assess improvement in emotional regulation after using DBT treatment with a group of women with BPD and substance dependence. The researchers then went on to examine the relationship between those improvements and the behavioral outcomes of the substance abuse problems that participants exhibited coming into the study.

Results from the study were encouraging across the board, with DBT treatment supporting study participants in achieving improved regulation of emotions, improved mood, and decreased substance use frequency. The study was not only able to demonstrate improved emotional control and regulation in BPD patients treated with DBT, but also showed that increased emotional regulation can account for greater behavioral control in those diagnosed with BPD.

While studies like this have established the efficacy of DBT in helping to reduce emotional dysregulation for those with BPD, other researchers were interested in determining if those same acquired DBT skills would be effective for other populations.

In one clinical intervention, a group of anxious and/or depressed, non-BPD individuals were split into two groups — those receiving Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Skills Training (DBT-ST) and those receiving an activities-based support group (ASG) approach. The study concluded that the DBT-ST approach was superior to ASG not only in significantly decreasing emotional dysregulation, but in decreasing levels of anxiety as well. These results further support DBT’s effectiveness in treating emotional dysregulation in populations other than just BPD; in this case, it was those with adults struggling with high levels of anxiety and depression.

As clinicians continue to find success using DBT to treat emotional dysregulation, the approach will likely be implemented among even more populations struggling with varying mental health disorders. Meanwhile, the studies mentioned here confirm that Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is achieving exceptional results in helping treat those who have difficulty controlling and/or regulating their emotions. By using DBT to provide individuals with the necessary knowledge, skills, and cognitive restructuring to manage emotional dysregulation, they will be better equipped to improve the quality of their lives by more productively handling and responding to daily stressors.