What Is A Behavioral Therapist, And What Do They Do?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Our actions can be complicated. Behavioral therapists are licensed therapists who work with clients to identify and address unproductive or harmful behaviors. Behavioral therapists may use a variety of methods, including social skills training, behavior modification, and operant conditioning. How does behavioral therapy work? The goal of behavioral therapy is to create a long-lasting change in behavior.

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Are negative behaviors complicating your life?

What is behavioral therapy?

Behavioral therapy (BT) is a common type of therapy. It’s characterized as a psychotherapy known as behavior modification therapy, which focuses on identifying and changing behaviors that can be harmful. Practitioners of behavioral therapy typically have advanced degrees in psychology, social work, psychiatry, or counseling and must maintain up-to-date licensure to work with clients. Many behavioral therapists are certified to specialize in niche areas of behavioral therapy and work with specific disorders or behavioral challenges.  

The benefits of behavioral therapy are well recognized in its efficacy in treating mental health issues. Behavioral therapy is frequently used by people who wish to address behavioral issues related to mental illnesses and anger management. To address unique client concerns, many behavioral therapists utilize an array of methods.

For example, behavioral therapists working with children with autism spectrum disorder may use a type of BT called applied behavior analysis to teach certain activities, such as tooth brushing and greeting strangers. Other forms of BT include cognitive-behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy. 

Types of behavioral therapy

Here are some common types of therapy practiced by behavioral therapists

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT) is often considered the “gold standard of psychotherapy”, because it is thoroughly researched, effective for a wide variety of people, and nuanced in its approach to the human psyche. This type of therapy combines behavioral therapy techniques with cognitive therapy. 

While behavioral therapy focuses on using external environments to drive positive behavioral changes, cognitive therapy focuses on addressing the internal self (thoughts and emotions) to create positive changes in thought patterns. Cognitive-behavioral therapy combines elements of both behavioral and cognitive therapy to focus on how thought patterns influence emotion and behavior.   

CBT is effective and frequently used to address symptoms of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hypersensitivity disorder, general stress, antisocial behaviors, chronic fatigue, smoking problems, eating disorders, anger management problems, and substance use disorders. 


Classical conditioning 

Classical conditioning is a type of learning that triggers automated behaviors in response to specific stimuli. You may have learned about Ivan Pavlov’s famous dog experiment in which he found that ringing a bell before feeding dogs could trigger salivation in the expectation of eating. Eventually, this behavior (salivation) was triggered in response to a ringing bell (the conditioned stimulus) even if food was not present. 

Classical conditioning techniques are sometimes used by behavioral therapists to address a wide range of fears and avoidant behaviors. 

Systematic desensitization

Systematic desensitization is a form of behavioral therapy that utilizes the principles of classical conditioning to focus on fears and phobias. It can be effective at addressing many fears, including social anxiety, agoraphobia, posttraumatic stress, arachnophobia, and a fear of heights. The format of systematic desensitization is to identify the fears that might result in avoidant behaviors and work slowly toward overcoming them.  

Someone with social anxiety may view giving a presentation as a “level-10 scary” fear. After defining that fear, a behavioral therapist would help the client identify a scale of social anxiety fears. For example, a “level-1 scary” fear may be shaking hands with a stranger. The therapists will then assign homework or work with the client during sessions to progressively face larger and larger fears until they can comfortably overcome the “level-10 scary” fear. 

Throughout the process, the therapist works to ensure that the client is relaxed, so when triggering stimuli (such as shaking someone’s hand) are encountered, the lack of fear acts to counter-condition the phobia. Over time, the client will not anticipate negative experiences from encountering their fear or phobia. 

Aversion therapy

Aversion therapy is another type of behavioral therapy that uses the concepts of classical conditioning. Unlike systematic desensitization, which aims to turn a negative response (avoidance and fear) into a positive response, aversion therapy aims to reduce a behavior by changing a positive response to a harmful stimulus (such as alcohol consumption) into a negative response. 

An example of aversion therapy is adding a bitter-tasting or nauseating substance to alcohol to make drinking less appealing. However, aversive techniques are shown to have limited effectiveness and are typically used in combination with other therapeutic techniques for this reason.  

How can a behavioral therapist help me?

Behavioral therapists can use many types of therapeutic techniques and methods to help a wide range of people. It can be effective at reducing symptoms of mental illnesses (including anxiety disorders, depression, and eating disorders), physical conditions (including chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome), and behavioral issues (including smoking, antisocial behaviors, avoidance resulting from phobias, and alcohol use). 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common and effective forms of behavioral therapy. A review of 106 meta-analyses* published in the Cognitive Therapy and Research journal found that CBT is particularly effective at addressing symptoms of anxiety, somatoform disorders, bulimia, anger control problems, and general stress. 

*Mental health research is constantly evolving, so older sources may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

Are negative behaviors complicating your life?

A 2017 study found that online CBT is effective in addressing many psychiatric disorders, including depression, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), adjustment disorder, bipolar disorder, chronic pain, and phobias. In addition to helping reduce symptoms of psychiatric disorders, researchers found that online CBT is often more cost-effective for those seeking therapy compared with in-person CBT. 

Online therapy, like BetterHelp, allows you to attend sessions from wherever you want, which can make the prospect of getting help less intimidating. Plus, when you sign up, you’re matched with a therapist whose clinical expertise is a good fit for your needs. 


Behavioral therapists are licensed clinical therapists who utilize a variety of methods to help clients address behaviors that can be unproductive or harmful. There are many peer-reviewed studies that support the efficacy and effectiveness of behavioral therapy for psychiatric disorders, physical conditions, and behavioral problems. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a sub-type of behavioral therapy that combines cognitive and behavioral therapy to help clients understand the relationship between thoughts, mood, and behavior. CBT is one of the most common types of psychotherapy, and online CBT is an effective alternative to in-person sessions for many people.  

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