Rape and sexual assault has been an issue throughout history, but in recent years the impact of sexual violence has come to the forefront of this country’s social justice agenda. Sexual violence affects millions of people every year. 1 in 3 women will be affected by a sex crime in their lifetime, as well as 1 in 6 men. Recognizing the impact of this violence and the way that these experiences have an effect on survivors’ lives is important, but it is difficult for survivors to know how to deal with the trauma and emotions they are left with afterwards. Many survivors of rape and sexual assault experience depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and other mental health problems triggered by their immense trauma. Although things may seem hopeless, there are several treatments and forms of therapy that have been proven to help survivors of sexual assault, and that have helped them to gain peace of mind and begin the healing process. One of these treatments is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT.
DBT is a form of therapy that was originally developed to help people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). DBT has been proven to be an intense yet effective treatment for individuals with BPD. While they are very distinct and different disorders, BPD and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder do share some common symptoms. Some of these share symptoms include experiencing intense emotions and difficulty managing them, problems with interpersonal relationships, and the high risk of engaging in risky behavior. Recently practitioners have had success implementing DBT with sexual assault survivors who suffer from PTSD.
DBT is a part of a group of therapies called cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on cognitive restructuring. A therapist works with a client to help change negatively formed thoughts, and changing a person’s toxic behaviors and beliefs to help reduce the negative symptoms they experience. DBT differentiates itself from traditional CBT because it focuses on accepting thoughts and emotions, as well as practicing mindfulness.
DBT recognizes that PTSD is not only a disorder, but is a psychological injury that changes the physiology of the brain. Because of that, survivors may have difficulty managing their emotions. Emotion dysregulation can also lead to impulsive behavior and dangerous scenarios such as self-harm. DBT works to improve a client’s emotion management, by teaching the client several skills that should help them to manage their emotions when they are feeling overwhelmed. These skills include mindfulness meditation, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation.
There are many studies that show DBT’s effectiveness both with patients with BPD and PTSD. For survivors of sexual assault with PTSD, the skills learned in DBT can help to manage emotions, particularly during an instance of flashbacks and triggering events. DBT has also been proven to help clients navigate interpersonal relationships, something that can be difficult and draining for survivors of sexual assault.
It should be noted that DBT is a very rigorous treatment, and one should expect frequent meetings with the clinician to begin, as well as homework assignments, and a lot of hard work beyond one on one meetings. However, firsthand accounts tell us that DBT is worth the effort, for the peace of mind and skills you will get out of the treatment.