How Does Dialectical Behavior Therapy For PTSD Work?

Medically reviewed by Kimberly L Brownridge , LPC, NCC, BCPC
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a type of psychotherapy used to treat various mental health conditions, including borderline personality disorder (BPD), eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. DBT may also be an effective treatment option for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD (C-PTSD). 

DBT focuses on developing four core skills that can assist with managing painful emotions, which may be common in those who have experienced a traumatic event. To understand how DBT might treat this condition, it can be helpful to look at PTSD symptoms and the core concepts within the DBT framework.
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What is PTSD?

PTSD is a serious mental health condition that can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. Common examples of traumatic events that may lead to PTSD symptoms include surviving a violent crime, experiencing an accident, surviving a natural disaster, or living in a war zone as a civilian or soldier. Surviving violence like physical or sexual assault or experiencing childhood abuse are other events that could lead to PTSD.

PTSD symptoms can vary over time and from one person to the next. One person may experience completely different symptoms from another, even if they have had similar traumatic experiences. Symptoms of PTSD include physical and emotional components and can significantly harm a person’s relationships and overall functioning. 

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788. You can also use the online chat

Physical and behavioral symptoms of PTSD

Below are a few of the most common physical and behavioral symptoms of PTSD: 

  • Flashbacks
  • Recurring memories of the event 
  • Reckless or risky behavior
  • Self-destructive or self-harming behavior
  • Difficulty with concentration or memory involving the traumatic event 
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia 
  • Avoiding thoughts, memories, or feelings associated with the traumatic event
  • Holding negative beliefs about oneself or the world, such as “I am fundamentally flawed and damaged” 

Emotional symptoms of PTSD

Below are common emotional symptoms of PTSD: 

  • Intense feelings of distress caused by memories or thoughts related to the event
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities 
  • Feeling detached from relationships with others
  • Difficulty experiencing happiness or satisfaction
  • Persistent feelings of fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame
  • Irritability, which can result in verbal or physical aggression
  • An exaggerated startle response
  • Feelings of guilt, often related to self-blame for the event or feeling one could have acted differently to prevent it 

What is dialectical behavior therapy?

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a type of therapy based on the concepts in cognitive-behavioral therapy with an emphasis on helping individuals regulate and tolerate their emotions

DBT focuses on developing four key coping skills for processing intense emotions: mindfulness, emotion regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and distress tolerance. Because involuntary and distressing emotions are a hallmark of PTSD, these four skill areas may be useful for individuals with this condition. For example, a study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that DBT treatments could reduce PTSD symptoms in women who had experienced childhood sexual abuse. Below are some of the theories and techniques involved in each module of DBT. 


The mindfulness module of DBT involves learning to focus on the present moment instead of ruminating on the past or fixating on the future. Mindfulness practices often highlight ways to connect your mind to your body through deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, or labeling emotions. Mindfulness can also connect you more closely to your emotions through practices like journaling. 

Mindfulness may be a key component of coping with PTSD, as one of the most common symptoms associated with the condition is a feeling of disconnection from one’s body, emotions, and relationships. People with PTSD may also believe they are “stuck in the past” and unable to move forward into the future. Mindfulness may help a person let go of the past and experience the present moment, reducing the perceived threat of the past and future.

Emotion regulation

The emotion regulation module of DBT builds on skills you can develop through mindfulness practice. Emotion regulation is the process of recognizing and identifying the source of your emotions, focusing on more distressing emotions like shame or anger. Emotion regulation can involve learning to differentiate between a primary emotion, which is an initial reaction, and a secondary emotion, which is often the “reaction to the reaction.” For example, you might experience sadness first, with embarrassment about your sadness following. 

Emotion regulation is not necessarily about identifying your emotions to dismiss or suppress them. Rather, emotion regulation aims to help clients fully feel their feelings while understanding that their feelings do not have to determine their thoughts or behaviors. Emotions can be intense but can be separated from your mind. 

Practicing emotion regulation can tackle two of the most persistent symptoms associated with PTSD: experiencing recurring and involuntary distressing emotions and intentionally avoiding aspects of one’s life that may recall emotions associated with the traumatic event. Learning to fully feel your emotions after experiencing trauma can seem overwhelming, but it may be a valuable step toward feeling in control of yourself. 

Interpersonal effectiveness

In the interpersonal effectiveness model, an emphasis is made on understanding your interactions with other people. Developing solid interpersonal effectiveness skills can mean learning about and practicing the components of healthy relationships, including open and assertive communication, understanding and respecting yourself and others, and knowing the value of setting and holding boundaries. Implementing interpersonal effectiveness may lead to stronger and healthier relationships. 

Access to a healthy and resilient support system can be helpful for individuals with PTSD symptoms, particularly those associated with negative self-beliefs and guilt. Connecting with others can help you find a new perspective, make new memories, find joy in the present, and cultivate hope for the future. Some DBT sessions may be held in a group format, allowing individuals to meet others with similar symptoms or concerns. 

Distress tolerance

Distress tolerance is one of the key areas of resilience that dialectical behavior therapy focuses on developing. Distress tolerance involves increasing a person’s ability to successfully navigate intense or stressful situations and the emotions one may experience as a result. A component of distress tolerance is learning to recognize what aspects of a situation you have control over and what are beyond your control. 

Increasing distress tolerance skill knowledge may help combat PTSD symptoms. Some aspects of PTSD, including hypervigilance, startling easily, or seeking distractions through risky behaviors, may be related to the trauma survivor’s desire to anticipate and avoid intense emotions. Developing the ability to process such emotions instead of avoiding them could allow a person with PTSD to re-engage in activities they have been avoiding. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
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Finding support for PTSD

PTSD is a complex mental health condition that can be immensely difficult to navigate independently. It may be helpful to seek professional support from a licensed mental health counselor when experiencing PTSD symptoms. 

If you have difficulties with flashbacks or intense feelings of fear that make it difficult to leave the house or commute to a new setting, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may be an effective treatment option. Through an online therapy platform, you can meet with a therapist in the comfort of your home. In addition, you may have the choice between phone, video, or live chat sessions, which can be helpful if you want to take therapy at your own pace. 

Dialectical behavior therapy is one treatment option for PTSD symptoms. Other therapeutic techniques that can positively impact those experiencing PTSD include cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure therapy. Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of online therapy for PTSD, with one such study concluding that internet-delivered cognitive-behavioral therapy could be as effective as in-person options. 


Living with PTSD may be overwhelming, but treatment options like dialectical behavior therapy are available. The four core modules of dialectical behavior therapy include mindfulness, emotion regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and distress tolerance. If you are ready to seek professional help, consider contacting a trauma-informed provider online or in your area for support.
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