Behavioral Therapy

By Sarah Cocchimiglio|Updated May 11, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Behavioral, or behavior, therapy is a broad term used to describe different types of therapeutic treatment designed to treat various mental health problems. It can benefit adults as well as children, whether in-person or with online therapy services. With the wide array of interventions available, it is effective for many people. Behavioral therapists specialize in treatments catered to diagnoses.

Want To Understand The Benefits Of Behavioral Therapy?

Behavioral Therapy 

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

  • Anger management issues
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Panic disorders

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

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

Types of Behavioral Therapy

Different types of behavioral therapy techniques exist that behavior therapists utilize to treat mental disorders. Combinations of different treatments are also beneficial. But any behavioral therapy treatment should be supervised and administered by a trained behavior therapist.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral 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 in a more effective way.”

CBT is a type of therapy that is based on the cognitive model. CBT stresses that patients can change the way they think, and gain control of their mood. CBT has been shown to be very effective in treating many common mental health concerns.

CBT is a very popular therapy technique and is a proven, reliable treatment. It is popular because it combines behavioral therapy with cognitive therapy. The main teaching of CBT is that thoughts impact your interpretation and perception of events, which in turn have an influence on your emotional response. Behavioral therapists typically have a patient focus on present problems, rather than past ones. By focusing on these issues, people learn skills that translate to future situations.

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 life events (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 in the moment when feelings of depression take hold. But in the long run, that behavior may make depression symptoms more severe.

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 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 stimulus that is extremely unpleasant. This treatment is popular in addressing some forms of substance abuse for that reason.

The goal of aversion therapy is to teach a patient to associate the problem 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.

Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy

This form 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.

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 own 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.

Systematic Desensitization

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

There are three phases to systematic desensitization treatment:

  1. Physical Treatment: Deep muscle relaxation techniques and breathing exercises are taught.
  2. Fear Hierarchy: Creating a chart or diagram of what a patient fears least all the way to the most fear-provoking phobia provides a structure for behavior therapy.
  3. Working Their Way Up: Patients working 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 stop causing a fear response.

How Effective is Behavioral Therapy?

Different types of behavior therapy have been extremely successful in combating different types and severities of mental disorders. Not only are different types of behavior therapy effective, they also address a wide range of different mental disorders.

Researchers contend that, among psychotherapeutic treatments, CBT is one of the most effective methods. It is important to remember that the success of behavior therapy depends not only on the behavior therapist, but on the effort the patient puts in as well.

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, if not alleviate them altogether. Treatment success depends on the interventions used, the ability of the therapist, and the commitment of the patient.

Finding the Right Behavior Therapist

Committing to thoroughly researching 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.

A behavior therapist's treatment will involve asking you personal and revealing questions. It can help to know what practice they are committed to, but you should also be sure you are comfortable with them. Some research suggests that the relationship you are able to create with your therapist is the most important factor in treatment outcomes.

BetterHelp Can Get You the Treatment You Need

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. Meta-analyses continue to confirm 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 at BetterHelp. Each is a vetted and licensed practitioner. Even if you struggle to afford therapy without health insurance, BetterHelp is a more affordable option than traditional therapy. You'll be connected with your perfect match from one of BetterHelp's thousands of counselors who practice online-based therapy. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing a range of behavioral therapies.

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 clearly 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. She listened intently to what I had to share, and overall, I felt the session was well-run and the conversation had a positive effect on my mood."

Moving Forward

Behavioral therapy tends to be short term, usually lasting between 10 and 20 sessions. Although this treatment may seem brief, its effects are usually long-lasting. 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 depression, the elimination of destructive addictions, and a curbing of fear and anxiety. Finding the right behavioral therapist and the right behavioral therapy techniques 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.


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 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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