What Is Behavioral Therapy?

Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Behavioral therapy is a psychotherapeutic treatment focused on the mental processes that can manifest as observable behaviors. One of the main goals of behavioral therapy is to allow an individual to put labels on cognitive distortions and learn healthy coping skills based on research. 

Treating various mental health disorders, such as anxiety disorders, phobias, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and personality disorders, is among the benefits of behavioral therapy. However, this type of therapy can be useful even if you do not have a mental health diagnosis for which you’re seeking treatment.

Getty/PeopleImages
Many people have questions about behavioral therapy

What is behavioral therapy? 

Behavioral therapy treatment often relies on the assumption that feelings, thoughts, physical sensations, and actions are interconnected. Many therapists believe that negative thoughts or beliefs are cyclical and keep individuals stuck in specific patterns.

This type of therapy targets symptoms by breaking thoughts into digestible concepts. It focuses on the relationships between what you think, feel, and do. Research on this method suggests that behavior can be learned and unlearned and is not part of someone's core self. The objective is to assist a person in discovering new behaviors to suppress or reduce unwanted ones. 

It can be important to note that behavior therapy generally differs from cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. Behavioral therapy combines with cognitive therapy to form CBT. In CBT, an emphasis is usually put on identifying unhelpful or unhealthy thought patterns, such as those that can lead to anxiety or exacerbate post-traumatic stress disorder. With CBT, people are normally taught about the ways in which their thoughts can impact their emotions and behaviors.

How does this therapy help patients recover?

Behavioral therapy addresses mental illness by focusing on the interconnections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Using principles from science and cognitive therapies, therapists can identify and replace maladaptive behaviors with healthier alternatives. 

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a common part of mental health treatment in behavior therapy programs. Programs can help teach coping skills and encourage positive behavior for those struggling with substance use or mental health conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Contextual science emphasizes the role of context in shaping behavior, cognition, and emotion. By understanding these factors, therapists help individuals make lasting changes and overcome challenges, ultimately fostering healthier behaviors.

Types

How is behavior therapy different from psychoanalysis? Therapeutic techniques like psychoanalysis and cognitive therapy focus primarily on insight, while behavioral therapies focus on actions. Several therapies are available, including, but not limited to, the following:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT is an integrative therapy that combines parts of behavioral treatment with cognitive therapy. While the behavior change aspect can be essential, cognitive therapy can help people identify unwanted thoughts or distorted beliefs. With CBT, mental health professionals can apply certain principles to maladaptive behaviors, mental health conditions, and relationship conflicts. CBT has proven effective in treating many conditions, as well as prolonged exposure to stress. For instance, it can be a form of treatment for eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Cognitive-behavioral play therapy (CBPT)

Therapists may use various methods of play to assess and treat mental health problems in children and improve behaviors through awareness of thought. Children might do roleplay, guided play, art therapy, or narrative therapy with a therapist to understand their feelings or what they're experiencing at home.  

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)

DBT teaches people to develop healthy coping skills, improve relationships, and manage emotions. It provides a profound focus on mindfulness and distress tolerance techniques.

Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT)

REBT focuses on replacing irrational thoughts with rational ones based on facts and understanding. It also connects a person’s emotions with rational thinking as a client-centered approach. Similar to CBT, it focuses on how thoughts can affect behavior.    

Exposure therapy or exposure and response prevention (ERP) 

The ERP technique is often used to treat patients with phobias, OCD, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among other conditions. Exposure therapy uses systematically controlled techniques that expose people to the source of their phobias or fears (or triggers, in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder) while simultaneously incorporating relaxation techniques. 

Getty/AnnaStills

Techniques

Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are two main principles of behavioral science that often form the foundations of this therapy. These two concepts explain the effectiveness of treating issues with this type of therapy.

Classical conditioning

Behavioral treatment based on classical conditioning focuses on forming associations between neutral stimuli and stimuli that provoke a response. There are numerous methods of behavior change through classical conditioning, including the following:

Flooding

Flooding is a procedure used by behavior therapists that involves exposing an individual to objects or situations they may be afraid of. An example of this could include exposing an individual with a fear of cats to pictures of cats, conversations about cats, and a real cat. Through flooding, an individual may learn that their fear response is not congruent with the actual danger of the situation. 

The individual cannot avoid the situation or object during the procedure, which forces them to embrace their fear. However, the approach can be disconcerting for some, so an experienced therapist is usually needed to facilitate the process. 

Systematic desensitization

Systematic desensitization is similar to flooding but occurs more gradually. The behavioral therapist may begin by requesting that the person create a list of their fears. Afterward, the therapist typically teaches relaxation tactics for the person to utilize while contemplating those fears. 

Next, they will work their way up from the minor fear-inducing stimuli to the most fear-triggering. The therapist will assist the person in embracing their fears in an undisturbed state. Exposure therapy (ERP) is a form of systematic desensitization. ERP is sometimes used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias.

Aversion 

Aversion therapy often aims to pair unwanted or unhealthy behaviors with aversive stimuli to reduce undesirable behavior effectively. For example, this therapy might be used when an individual who wants to stop chewing on their nails uses bitter-tasting nail polish to cause disgust if they start nail biting. Due to the negative consequences of biting their nails, they might start to avoid the habit altogether. 

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning is a practice that uses positive reinforcement, punishment, and modeling to change unwanted behavior. It includes the following strategies:

Token economics

Token economics is based on positive reinforcement, giving people tokens to exchange for desired privileges when positive behaviors are shown. Teachers and parents commonly use the strategy to enhance and manage a child's behavior and mark progress toward a long-term goal. 

Contingency management

Contingency management may involve a formal written agreement between a therapist and the client that outlines the objectives, rewards, and penalties associated with the conditions of a treatment plan. For many, having a written contract could play a role in altering behavior and ensuring accountability. For others, this process may feel limiting. 

Modeling

Modeling involves learning via observing and imitating others. A role model plays a crucial role in showing another person healthier behaviors. For example, a parent might be a role model to a child, or a therapist may be a role model to a client. 

Extinction

Extinction often works by eliminating all forms of reinforcement to a specific behavior in order to eliminate that unwanted behavior. For example, each time you procrastinate studying, you might decide not to leave your home for the day except for errands. Doing so removes any rewards you might receive from going out with friends, eating out, or shopping. 

Is it effective?

These methods are considered effective for many, with a success rate upwards of 75%. CBT may be the most popular form of behavioral therapy and can treat conditions like: 

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Depression

  • Borderline personality disorder

  • Autism spectrum disorder

  • Somatoform disorders

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • Chronic psychological stress

  • Anger management difficulties 

  • Eating disorders 

  • Substance use disorders

Peer-reviewed research shows that CBT is more effective than medication and other forms of talk therapy when treating panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, OCD, and PTSD. However, it may not be effective for everyone, and some individuals may prefer a different approach. 

Some individuals might also try medication for their symptoms. Consult with a mental health or medical professional to find the most suitable option for you. You may start to see results quickly, or it may take some time. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Many people have questions about behavioral therapy

Counseling options 

Finding a therapist can be challenging. You may search for a provider through your insurance company or obtain a referral through your doctor. An online search might also yield results for therapists in your area. Regardless of where you look, ensure that the therapist you hire is licensed and experienced in treating your concerns. 

If you struggle to find a behavioral therapist in your area or face barriers to treatment, such as cost, you can also consider online therapy, like internet-based CBT. Online therapy has been proven as effective as in-person therapy in treating symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. If you’re looking for qualified mental health counselors, consider signing up for an online platform like BetterHelp, which offers over 30,000 therapists specializing in various treatment types, including CBT. 

Online therapy can allow you control over your treatment, as you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions. 

Takeaway

Behavioral therapy targets the way emotions and thoughts can impact behaviors and decisions. If you're interested in trying this therapy or researching its methods further, consider discussing the topics above with a mental health professional for guidance and resources.

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