Behavioral Therapy

Updated October 5, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Behavioral, or behavior, therapy is a broad term used to describe different types of treatment designed to treat various mental health disorders. Talking with a therapist benefits adults as well as children and is even utilized in adolescent psychology. This includes in-person or with online therapy services. With the wide array of interventions available, it is effective for many people and for different types of mental illness. Behavioral therapists specialize in treatments catered to diagnoses.

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Behavioral Therapy 

Some of the most common conditions that behavioral therapy is used for include:

  • Behavior problems or undesirable behaviors
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Panic disorders

In addition, behavioral therapy and aversion therapy can also help care for and alleviate symptoms for:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Self-mutilation
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Eating disorders
  • Addiction (drugs, alcohol, etc.)

Types of Behavioral Therapy

Different types of behavioral therapy techniques exist that behavior therapists utilize to treat mental disorders in individuals. Combinations of different treatments are also beneficial in producing positive results, or desirable behaviors, in some cases. But any behavioral therapy treatment should be supervised and administered by a trained behavior therapist, who specializes in this type of therapy, including a psychiatrist or someone that has a background in child or adolescent psychology.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, also known as cognitive behavioural therapy, (CBT) is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a treatment that “helps you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them more effectively.” It is a major aspect of psychotherapy.

CBT is a type of therapy that is based on the cognitive model. CBT stresses that patients can change the way they think, emotional functioning, behaviors, relationships, and gain control of their mood. CBT can be effective in treating a number of common mental health concerns by setting goals and strategies to address problematic behaviors and thoughts.

CBT is a very popular therapy technique process and is a proven, reliable treatment, which can lessen behaviors, reinforce desirable behaviors, and more. It is popular because it combines behavioral or behavioural therapy with cognitive therapy. The main teaching of CBT is that thoughts impact your interpretation and perception of events, which in turn influence your emotional response to others and risk negative behaviors. Behavioral therapists typically have a patient focus on present problems, rather than past ones. By focusing on these issues, people learn and study skills that translate to future situations. This could make a difference when it comes to stress management, or modifying behaviors that is unwanted, among other things.

Behavioral Activation Therapy

Behavioral activation (BA) therapy is essentially a behavior treatment for depression that aims to target reactions or behaviors that might maintain or worsen the depression. The behavioral activation therapy model proposes that things happing in life (including loss, significant trauma, genetic predispositions to mental disorders like depression or anxiety, and even the hassles in life) lead to people experiencing low amounts of positive reinforcement from their environment.

The main issue with the negative reactions to situations is that they may increase the symptoms of mental disorders. For example, shutting oneself out and away from everyone and anything might seem like a great idea at the moment when feelings of depression take hold. But in the long run, that behavior may make depression symptoms more severe and allow emotional trauma to take place.

The behavioral psychotherapy technique BA proposes an "outside-in" approach. It delivers behavior therapy activities aimed to allow patients to begin to increase their chance of having a better opportunity to receive positive reinforcement.

In behavioral analytic theory, the importance of the outcome of an action is higher than the form that action takes. Further, BA targets "avoidance" reactions and behaviors. Avoiding behaviors such as excessive sleep, or problematic thoughts, must be addressed with proper BA behavioral therapy techniques aimed to alleviate symptoms.

Aversion Therapy

Aversion therapy can be administered by a behavior therapist, and it aims to teach patients to associate a stimulus that is desirable, yet destructive, with another extremely unpleasant stimulus. This treatment is popular in addressing some forms of substance abuse for that reason and can teach new behaviors.

The goal of aversion therapy is to teach a patient to associate the problem of addiction with something that causes them discomfort or extreme uneasiness. For example, a behavior therapist can teach a patient to associate alcohol with a personal, unpleasant memory. There is research that suggests there is empirical support for this type of therapy, in lessening alcohol use disorder through the use of an aversive stimulus or negative situation.

Exposure Therapy

With this type of therapy, an individual is asked to confront the thing that they are afraid of or avoid. The therapy sessions associated with it can be stressful at times, but research indicates that it can make a difference in the symptoms related to anxiety, PTSD and OCD. It may also be helpful with other types of mental illness.  

Cognitive-Behavioral Play Therapy

This part of behavioral therapy is most commonly and effectively used with children experiencing behavior disorders. When a behavior therapist watches or observes a child play, the behavior therapist is given key insight into how that child reacts to specific situations. For example, behavior therapists can learn what topics a child is uncomfortable with or incapable of expressing. They may also interact with them so they can understand their academic performance and interpersonal relationships. These aspects may be important when it comes to clinical child psychology and adolescent psychology.

Want To Understand The Benefits Of Behavioral Therapy?

Allowing children to play also enables them to feel safe and comfortable. They're free to choose their toys and play at will, allowing behavior therapists the opportunity to glimpse into how that child behaves and reacts. Behavior therapists can also play with a child, so they can gain knowledge and pass it on to parents. This enables parents to implement tactics to have better communication with their children and provide them with the positive attention they require. 

One example that may be suggested by a clinical child psychologist is implementing token economies in your household. This allows you to reward behaviors that are wanted. Perhaps you decide to institute a chore wheel, and when your child completes their chores, they will be allowed more minutes of free time. They can then decide what to spend that free time doing. This may be able to reinforce desirable behaviors, new behaviors, and teach kids responsibilities as well.

Systematic Desensitization

Systematic desensitization is another form of behavioral therapy that is based on the history and principles of classical conditioning. This type of behavior therapy aims to remove the fear response a patient has to a phobia. In substitution of fear, calm or relaxed response to the conditional stimulus begins to gradually develop through counter conditioning. This can lead to the development of more desirable behaviors.

3 Phases To Systematic Desensitization Treatment:

  1. Physical Treatment: Basic principles such as deep muscle relaxation techniques and breathing exercises are taught.
  2. Fear Hierarchy: Creating a chart or diagram of what a patient fears least to the most fear-provoking phobia, provides a structure for behavior therapy.
  3. Working Their Way Up: Patients work upwards through their fear hierarchy beginning with the fear they are least affected by. By working their way up to the stimulus that provokes the most fear, patients feel less prone to being upset or disturbed by it. The situations or feared objects may begin to cause a non fearful response or behaviors. How many sessions this will take can be discussed with your therapist.

How Effective is Behavioral Therapy?

Different types of behavior therapy are thought to be extremely successful in combating different types and the severities of certain mental disorders. Not only are different types of behavior therapy effective, but they also address a wide range of different mental disorders, including severe depression, other anxiety disorders, and psychiatric disorders.

Researchers and students contend that, among psychotherapeutic treatments, CBT is one of the most effective methods to support healing mental health concerns. It is important to remember that the success of behavior therapy depends not only on the sense of behavior therapist but on the way the patient puts in effort as well. This involves being present for therapy sessions, being an active participant, and following the advice of your therapist.

Studies find that behavior therapy techniques are most effective in treating:
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Paranoia
  • Extreme phobias
  • Anger issues
  • Bulimia and anorexia
  • Stress
  • Somatoform disorders

Seeking treatment from a behavior therapist can greatly reduce symptoms, such as problematic thoughts and behaviors, if not alleviate them altogether. Treatment success depends on the behavioral therapies used, the ability of the therapist, and the commitment of the patient.

Finding the Right Behavior Therapist

Committing to conducting research on a behavior therapist that specializes in working with the problems you are facing is important when seeking treatment. You can find many therapists who utilize behavior therapy at BetterHelp, who are vetted and licensed practitioners. The site complies with all applicable medical standards as well. When you are seeking a clinical child psychologist, it may be even more important to find someone to work with that you can trust.

A behavior therapist's treatment will involve asking you personal and revealing questions. They will likely inform you about contingency contracts and a formal written contract as well, both of which are necessary and helpful for you and your therapist. In the case of online therapy, this may require an inbox sign, where you can agree electronically.

Moreover, taking the time to find the right therapist can help to know what behavioral therapies they are committed to, and you should also be sure you are comfortable with them. The relationship you create with your therapist may be part of the most important factor in treatment outcomes and changing behaviors or thoughts.

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Behavioral therapy, like CBT, is also available through online counseling. The effectiveness of CBT delivered online was studied in over 1,000 different published research initiatives between 2000 and 2012. Since then, the success of the treatment has only continued to improve. Research continues to provide empirical support that this method is especially effective in treating some of the most common mental illnesses, like anxiety and depression. Moreover, through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a study was published which shows that CBT may be more effective when it is administered virtually, versus in other forms, such as face-to-face.

If you think behavioral therapy might work for you, you can find many therapists who utilize behavioral therapy techniques at BetterHelp. Each is a vetted and licensed practitioner. Even if you struggle to afford psychotherapy without health insurance, BetterHelp is a more affordable option than traditional therapy. You'll be connected with a counselor from one of BetterHelp's thousands of counselors who practice online-based psychotherapy. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing a range of behavioral therapies and behavioral approaches.

Counselor Reviews

“I have worked with Amy for over two years and it has changed my life. She helped me appreciate the importance of acceptance of who I am, self-compassion, and moving past my cognitive distortions using CBT. She listened deeply to me during our sessions and was able to provide unique insights into how to move past challenges in my life. I would highly suggest anyone needing to make a change in their life work with Amy to help them do so.”

"I enjoyed my session with Traci. She was able to give me a variety of CBT techniques in our very first session."

Moving Forward

Behavioral therapy tends to be short-term, usually lasting between 10 and 20 sessions. Every therapy session will be different, depending on the patient. Although this treatment may seem brief, its effects are usually long-lasting, and may offer a broad range of new skills or behaviors. Committing to behavioral therapy can enable you to achieve a level of peace you once thought was impossible.

Treatment can lead to a range of positive reactions, including the alleviation of symptoms of depression, the elimination of destructive addictions, and the lessening of fear and anxiety. Finding the right behavioral therapist and the right behavioral therapy techniques to address your behaviors can lead to recovery and the elimination of debilitating symptoms that inhibit you from living your life normally. With commitment comes recovery. Take the first step today.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is an example of behavior therapy?

Behavior therapies, an umbrella term encompassing multiple different subsets of therapy, are centered around reframing behavior problems through association or conditioning. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a different type of behavioral therapy that, similar to DBT, focuses on talking through and analyzing thought patterns. An example of behavior therapy is using aversion therapy to create negative associations with a stimulus. For example, someone struggling with substance use disorders may take a special medication that makes them feel nauseous every time they drink, thus creating a negative association between alcohol and feeling sick. 

What does the therapist do in behavioral therapy?

Mental health professionals who specialize in behavior therapy are specifically trained in behavior analysis, allowing them to break down the root of the patient's behavior, then use behavioral techniques, like operant conditioning and systematic desensitization, to reframe those behaviors. Mental health information can also be given from the therapist to the patient to continue their practice at home. 

What is the main focus of behavior therapy?

The main focus of behavior therapy is to identify and subsequently change behaviors that are unhealthy and self-destructive for increased client well-being. It employs the theories and research project of B.F Skinner, a behavioral psychologist. With repetitive treatment and therapy sessions, negative behaviors can be reframed or retrained into positive behaviors. 

What are the 3 types of therapy?

While there are many more subsets of therapy, most talk therapies fall into three different categories: 

  • Psychodynamic or Psychoanalytical therapy for generalized mental health treatment
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for anxiety disorders and coping skills
  • Humanistic Therapy 
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy for a person with a personality disorder
What are the four types of behavior therapy?

As mentioned in the article above, there are four main types of behavioral therapy:

  • Acceptance and commitment to therapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Behavioral activation therapy 

Systematic desensitization and play therapy are more categorized as techniques used in behavioral therapy, not a style of therapy itself. Behavior therapy as a whole is used to treat a variety of mental health disorders, like autism spectrum disorders, eating disorders, anxiety, improving social skills, classroom management, developing helpful thinking patterns, and many more.  

What is the difference between CBT and behavioral therapy?

Behavioral therapy is an all-encompassing term that describes a wide range of therapies, including cognitive-behavioral therapy. So, CBT is a type of behavioral therapy, but behavioral therapy is not a type of CBT. Both types of therapies employ frame theory or the idea that every problem or situation can be presented from an array of perspectives or POVs. According to the American Psychological Association, frame theory can also be presented as the framing effect. 

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