The Biosocial Model

The Biosocial Theory

Linehan’s research and other research on the brain shows that some people tend to experience things more intensely and as a result are more reactive to events than the general population.  This can be something that is part of the person’s genetics or the product of early life experiences that have shaped how the brain responds. Either way, the person has a higher degree of sensitivity to emotions, so that arousal occurs more easily, is heightened and is slower to come back down once activated.

It is important to note that it is not just the person reacting more intensely. It is that their experience is more intense for both pleasant and unpleasant events. Linehan (1983) refers to this as lacking an emotional skin, and likens it to a burns victim who experiences pain at the slightest touch.

Emotional sensitivity is not a problem per se, it can have the benefits of increased intensity of love, passion, empathy and connection.  However, when a person does not know how to take care of their sensitivity they may learn to dull the pain through escaping or avoiding emotions, and this can lead to extreme measures that have their own consequences as well the by-product of maintaining the belief that the person cannot tolerate and cope with intense emotions. (See more on the Biosocial Model)

The Role of Invalidation and Validation

When a person experiences emotions that are more intense than those around them they often feel disconnected or alienated from others.  They may receive a range of messages from those around them that are about toning down their emotions, such as being  told they are ”too emotional”, or “too sensitive”.  They may then experience a sense of being rejected, not understood or punished for their level of emotional intensity.  Over time the person starts to believe the messages that “there emotions should not be as they are”, or that “they are over reacting”. They may then learn to distrust their own emotional experience and start to reject or punish themselves for their emotional experience.  Linehan (1983) says that you cannot ride and have control of a horse without being on the horse, so if you reject your emotional experience it is hard to learn how to manage it. This brings us to the dialectic in DBT that in order to manage or change our response to our emotions we must first accept that this is the experience we are having.



Part of the solution in managing ongoing intense emotional distress.

What does DBT suggest is the solution to ongoing intense emotional experiences.  The experience of having intense emotional experiences has been likened to being equipped with a Formula One race car motor when everyone around you is driving a standard car (Hollander, 2008). Most people learn how to drive in an ordinary car and so the advice most people get about driving relates to this. However, to drive a Formula One car you need more specialised skills otherwise you are going to careen around, feeing out of control and crashing.  Similarly, most people can get on a horse, do a few laps around the paddock, or even a trail ride, without too much trouble. However, it takes specialist skills to ride a thoroughbred racehorse. What’s more, and this is very important, to learn how to drive a Formula One car or ride a thoroughbred, it takes time and practice. Similarly, learning to manage an emotional system that is more sensitive to the outside world requires learning and practising different skills.