What Are The Types And Benefits Of Behavioral Therapy?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Behavioral therapy is a broad term describing forms of mental healthcare focused on behavioral patterns and how these patterns can connect with emotions and thoughts. Behavioral therapists often follow behavior theory principles, which posit that behavior is learned and can be changed. Behavior therapy uses the principles of operant conditioning and classical conditioning to help clients change habits, manage symptoms, and feel in control of their behavior. Understanding behavioral therapy and its benefits can help you decide if this form of therapy suits your goals.

Want to learn more about the benefits of behavioral therapy?

What does behavioral therapy treat?

Behavioral therapy is often indicated in the treatment of the following symptoms, mental health disorders, and mental health conditions:

  • Undesired behaviors
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Anxiety disorders 
  • Paranoia
  • Panic disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) 
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Self-harm habits 
  • Phobias
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance use disorders

If you are experiencing any mental health concerns and think behavioral therapy might benefit you, consider contacting a therapist for a consultation to discuss your treatment goals. There are hundreds of therapeutic modalities from which to choose, and a therapist may recommend another option if behavioral therapy isn't the most effective for your concern.

Types of behavioral therapy

There are several popular forms of behavioral therapy, and combinations of treatments can be used. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular forms of mental health treatment in the US. It combines behavioral and cognitive theories, showcasing how an individual's mental processes, such as negative thoughts and beliefs, can impact their behavioral patterns and habits. CBT posits that clients can change their thoughts to improve emotional functioning, behaviors, relationships, feelings, and mood.

By being problem-focused and allowing clients to set achievable goals and take responsibility for healing, CBT can effectively treat several common mental health concerns, such as depression,social anxiety and more.

CBT is a proven, reliable treatment that can lessen unwanted behaviors, reinforce desirable behaviors, and increase low self-esteem. Behavioral therapists working with CBT may ask clients to focus on present rather than past problems. Techniques like mindfulness can support this process by allowing clients to develop sensory awareness and grounding techniques they can use when stressed. Worksheets, tracking diaries, and journals are often used in CBT to help clients progress toward their goals.


Behavioral activation therapy (BA) 

Behavioral activation (BA) therapy is a treatment for depression that aims to target behaviors that might maintain or worsen depressive symptom severity. The behavioral activation therapy model proposes that events that may lead to individuals experiencing low amounts of positive reinforcement from their environment can happen in life. In response, individuals may experience more negative behaviors and unwanted emotions. 

To treat these challenges, behavioral activation showcases how one's behaviors can worsen symptoms of a mental health condition like depression. For example, isolating from social circles can feel most comfortable when symptoms of depression are occurring. However, isolation may increase emotional distress in the long term, as social connection is essential to mental well-being. 

The behavioral psychotherapy technique proposes an "outside-in" approach. It delivers behavior therapy activities to increase clients' chances of positive reinforcement and connection. Further, BA targets "avoidance" reactions and behaviors. Avoiding behaviors such as excessive sleep or refusing to discuss emotions are addressed with BA therapy techniques to help individuals learn new ways of reacting to symptoms.

Exposure therapy (ERP) 

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is a cognitive-behavioral technique that involves exposure and desensitization to what an individual fears, whether that is an activity, thought, place, object, living being, compulsion, or situation. Research indicates that exposure therapy can reduce symptoms related to anxiety, PTSD, and OCD

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavioral therapy is an intensive form of cognitive behavioral therapy in which clients learn to handle intense emotional reactions that may interfere with relationships or daily life. In DBT, clients learn skills to increase interpersonal effectiveness, improve emotional control, increase tolerance to distress, and develop mindfulness.

Cognitive behavioral play therapy

Cognitive-behavioral play therapy is commonly and effectively used with children experiencing behavioral challenges. When a behavior therapist observes a child's play, they may receive insight into how that child perceives their environment, themselves, and their relationships. For example, behavior therapists can learn what topics a child is uncomfortable with or incapable of expressing through observing the conversations they play out with two dolls. The therapist can also play with the child to understand their interpersonal relationships at home, as children often mimic what they see from their parents. 

Allowing children to play may enable them to feel safe and comfortable during therapy sessions. They're often free to choose their toys and play at will, enabling behavior therapists to see the world from their eyes. After sessions with a child, the therapist may help the child's parents understand the themes coming up in sessions and how to address these at home. This process may enable parents to implement tactics for better attachment and communication with their children.

One example that a clinical child psychologist may suggest is implementing token economies in your household. Through this process, parents can 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 free time. They can then decide what to spend that free time doing. Rewards can reinforce desirable behaviors and teach children responsibility for their actions.

Want to learn more about the benefits of behavioral therapy?

Systematic desensitization

Systematic desensitization is another form of behavioral therapy based on the history and principles of classical conditioning. This behavior therapy type aims to remove a client's fear response to a phobia. In substitution of fear, calm or relaxed responses to a conditional stimulus gradually develop through counter-conditioning. Desensitization is similar to exposure therapy. However, it may involve more structure and gradual tapering in the severity of the exposure. 

Three typical phases of this type of treatment include the following: 

  1. Physical: Deep muscle relaxation techniques and breathing exercises are taught.
  2. Fear Hierarchy: The client and therapist create a chart or diagram of all fears, starting with the lesser fears and ending with the most fear-provoking phobia or concern. 
  3. Desensitization: Clients work upward through their fear hierarchy, beginning with the fear that produces the least amount of anxiety. By working their way up to the stimulus that provokes the most fear, clients may desensitize themselves to it.

How effective is behavioral therapy?

Different types of behavior therapy are thought to combat symptoms in various mental health conditions successfully. However, it may not be effective for everyone. There are many other types of therapies to try if you don't connect with the principles of any kind of behavioral treatment. 

CBT is one of the most effective methods for common mental illnesses, symptoms, stress, and life challenges. However, the success of behavior therapy often depends on both the therapist and the client. Willingness to try new behavioral patterns, open your mind, and consider your role in treatment can be beneficial. Attending sessions consistently is also a core requirement of behavioral therapy. 

Behavior therapy techniques address many disorders but may be most effective in treating:

  • Depression
  • Substance use disorders 
  • Paranoia
  • Extreme phobias
  • Anger issues
  • Eating disorders 
  • Stress

Seeking treatment from a behavior therapist may reduce, if not alleviate, symptoms such as negative thinking and problematic thought patterns or behaviors. Treatment success may depend on the behavioral therapies used, the therapist's ability, and the client's commitment.

Counseling options 

There are many ways to find a behavioral therapist. You may be able to search for one online or check internet-based psychologist directories. You can also ask your primary care provider for a referral. However, if you face barriers to treatment, such as the cost of therapy or a lack of providers in your area, you can also partake in telehealth therapy. 

If you're unsure about the effectiveness of online behavioral therapy, several studies have been done to showcase its impact. The effectiveness of internet-based CBT was studied in over 1,000 different published research initiatives between 2000 and 2012, showcasing results similar to those of in-person interventions. 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. 

If you think behavioral therapy might work for you, you can find many therapists who utilize behavioral therapy techniques through a platform like BetterHelp. Even if you struggle to afford psychotherapy without health insurance, online therapy can be more affordable than traditional therapy, often saving clients hundreds of dollars monthly.


Every type of behavioral therapist is different, and there are many types of behavioral therapy to try. The impact of therapy formats like CBT is often long-lasting and may offer a broad range of healthier coping skills to clients partaking in it. Committing to behavioral therapy can enable you to achieve your goals and change unwanted behavioral patterns. 

Finding the right behavioral therapist and the proper behavioral techniques to address your behaviors can lead to symptom management and self-confidence. Take the first step by reaching out to a behavioral therapist for guidance and support. 

Explore mental health and healing in therapy
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started