What Is Habituation Psychology And Why Does It Matter?

Updated July 8, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Not Every Therapy Method Works For Every Person

There are many different ways to approach therapy. One of the most commonly utilized methods is psychotherapy, a dialogue-based form of therapy in which someone works with a therapist, counselor, or another medical professional to identify their problems and find solutions or ways to work through them.

Even within the realm of psychotherapy, there are different subspecialties, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and group therapy.

The reason so many different approaches to therapy exist is that different methods work for different people and different conditions. Even among people with the same condition, different methods of therapy may resonate with them, and that is okay. When working with a therapist or counselor, it is important to be honest about whether the method they are using is helping you. If it is not, there are other options for how to approach your therapy that may be a better fit for you and your situation.

With so many different ways to approach psychology, there are likely some lesser-known psychological methods you are unfamiliar with. One branch of psychology you may not have heard before is habituation psychology.

What Is Habituation?

Habituation is another way to describe adaptation. As humans, we gradually adjust to changed circumstances so that they do not impact us in the way they once did. Our response to any stimulus will decrease over time with repeated exposures. One way to think of habituation is to compare it to building a tolerance to a drug. There are slight variations in the theories of habituation, but they all agree that it comes down to a stimulus eliciting a weaker response in the brain over time.

What Influences Habituation?

Multiple factors influence habituation, including the following:

Duration: The amount of time someone is presented with a stimulus has an impact on habituation. When you are exposed to a stimulus for a longer amount of time, you are more likely to become habituated to it. A loud, sudden noise, like a dog bark, is not presented long enough for habituation to occur. This phenomenon, when exposure occurs but response continues to stay just as strong as the first exposure, is known as spontaneous recovery. You do not get used to the sound of a dog barking because the barks themselves are so short that your brain does not have time to habituate to the exposure.

Frequency: The more you are exposed to something, the quicker you will become habituated to it. When you walk by a rose bush for the first time, the smell will likely be very strong. But if you walk by the same bush multiple times throughout the day, the smell will likely lose some of its pungency. You will no longer smell the roses as strongly as someone who only walks by the bush once a month.

Intensity: It is harder to habituate to very intense stimuli. For certain things, like a car alarm, habituation never occurs. It will sound just as loud and jarring no matter how many times you hear it. Though it seems counterintuitive, it is easier for the brain to habituate to milder stimuli.

Change: Changes in the stimuli make it harder to habituate. For example, if a sound continually gets louder and then softer, the original response is likely to keep occurring. If you heard the same sound at a constant volume, it would be easier to habituate.

When Does Habituation Occur?

Habituation occurs in your everyday life, likely without you even realizing it. The methods described above are related to habituation of sensory objects. These are things like a painting on the wall that you love but stands out less over time, a candle that smells less strongly the longer you sit in the room where it's lit, or the conversational noise in a restaurant that sounds very loud when you first walk in but bothers you less as you sit through your meal.

Not Every Therapy Method Works For Every Person

Habituation also occurs in areas beyond outward senses. Habituation occurs with circumstances and feelings as well. This is important to consider when it comes to material goods and wealth. A good example of habituation to a circumstance is when someone gets a big raise at work. When this person hears they're getting a raise, they think their life will change. They think they will be much happier because of this boost to their earnings.

This rarely is the case. It may briefly feel really good and different to have that boost in their paycheck, but over time it becomes the new normal.Life goes back to the way it was before. This person adapted, or habituated, to the new salary. The stimuli, in this case, the salary, had less of an effect on the person's happiness over time than they initially expected.

This is another theme of habituation to experience or circumstance – people tend to overestimate the impact the thing will have on them in the future. In some cases, this is a good thing, as the feelings of sadness someone experiences after a breakup with a romantic partner. It seems at first like the feelings of sadness will last forever, but over time you habituate to the idea that the romance is over and you can move on. When it works to lessen the emotional burden of something, habituation can be positive.

The phenomenon of overestimating the effect something will have in the future is known as focusing illusion. It occurs because you are focusing on one distinct thing without acknowledging that other factors will occupy your mind in the future.The original thing will no longer hold the importance that it currently does. It is important to keep this in mind when going through a hard time.

Habituation Psychology And Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely utilized form of psychotherapy. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, eating disorders, phobias, and substance abuse disorders. CBT is highly effective and can be performed through a variety of different channels, including individual sessions, group therapy, or even online. If you think you may benefit from CBT, consider discussing the treatment with a counselor on BetterHelp to see if CBT can help you.

CBT focuses on the relationship between one's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with a goal of changing the behaviors. The guiding philosophy of CBT is that our thoughts influence our feelings which influence our behavior, so to change your behavior, you need to change your thoughts. CBT techniques include visualization and thought records.

Exposure Therapy

Another method sometimes utilized as part of a CBT treatment is exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is specifically designed to help people combat their fears and anxieties. The idea behind exposure therapy is that avoiding a fear makes it worse, so you must be exposed to your fears to become more comfortable with them. The exposure makes the situation, object, or activity that the person fears less scary, so they can begin the process of overcoming their fear or phobia. The goal of exposure therapy is to alter the person's thoughts and feelings about their fear to shift their behavior away from avoidance.

Exposure therapy has been proven effective to treat conditions like phobias, social anxiety disorders, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others. It is believed that exposure therapy is effective because it helps the person shape new, more realistic beliefs about their fear than the ones they had built up in their mind. It also builds a sense of confidence and self-efficacy when the person realizes that they do have the ability to face their fears and ultimately control the feelings of anxiety.

Exposure therapy also functions by invoking habituation. Habituation lessens the impact that something has on your mind. When someone is exposed to something they fear, over time that fear will decrease. Whatever the stimuli in this situation is, whether it be an uncomfortable social situation or an object that someone fears when they are exposed to that stimuli, the anxiety they feel in response will decrease with time. When exposed to something they fear, habituation functions to reduce the anxious or fearful response that the person is used to.

Habituation Psychology In Your Life

Habituation is an interesting psychological phenomenon that you experience in your daily life, whether you realize it or not. While these minor, daily occurrences do not have much of an impact on your life, habituation can be a very useful tool in certain situations. It is important to keep habituation in mind to keep your emotions under control when a life change occurs and remember that you will adapt to the situation, good or bad.

Sometimes we need a little outside help when adapting to a change, even a positive one. If this is the case for you, an in-person or online therapist can help. They will guide you through your thoughts and feelings surrounding responses to the stimuli in your life that is causing you stress. Learning how to manage these responses can go a long way in reducing and sometimes even overcoming them.

If finding time for therapy prevents you from seeking the help you need, know that online therapy can be as effective as traditional therapy. A study of 12 veterans with PTSD receiving prolonged exposure therapy via online showed that they reported a significant reduction in their symptoms. The study also reported that online therapy is a feasible and safe form of treatment.

How BetterHelp Can Support You

If you experience anxieties, phobias, or other fear-related conditions, habituation through exposure therapy could be a great tool to help you overcome your fears. Like most psychological methods, it is not for everyone, but the potential to habituate and lessen your fears is great. If you think you may benefit from habituation and exposure therapy, discuss the idea with your therapist or alicensed counselor through BetterHelp. You can meet with your therapist in the comfort of your own home and at a time that works best for you. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

Monje is by far my favorite therapist I’ve worked with. She has taught me many different and effective coping mechanisms for my anxiety. I felt comfortable with her right away and never felt judged. She is extremely patient, caring and kind. I highly recommend Monje!

I was highly skeptical when I joined BetterHelp...I had been in therapy before and the therapist, while a nice person, didn’t have the tools and advice that worked for me..I mostly just kept going because I liked that I could vent to someone that wasn’t biased. But when I had my first meeting with Jamie, she was so kind! She had real feedback and offered actual advice and tools for helping me cope with my anxiety. I love that I’m able to send messages in between my video sessions and still get the support I need. I would recommend BetterHelp and Jamie to anyone. I know everyone has a personality type they vibe with, but Jamie suits me wonderfully. 

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