What is Behavioral Therapy?

The connections between our thoughts and actions are powerful, but all too often we fail to appreciate the importance of maintaining a positive focus, no matter what situations we find ourselves in. It’s easy to forget that ineffective or harmful thought patterns can cause negative behavior, particularly when things go wrong. Some people are more prone to letting negative thoughts turn into problematic behaviors than others. This is when one should turn to a mental health professional and start asking how to find a therapist to start in individual therapy, group therapy, or an online therapy session.

When problems are exacerbated by unhealthy thought patterns or psychological trauma, understanding how one’s thoughts can contribute to the symptoms is key to overcoming the associated distress. Examples of such conditions are a person’s beliefs, world models, self-image, and feelings about the future.One may begin to question what is therapy, therapy meaning or what therapy means for them. By applying various therapeutic strategies, behavior therapists attempt to alter these maladaptive cognitions to reduce and eliminate emotional distress and unhealthy behaviors in a therapy session.

Origins of behavioral therapy

One may question what is behavioral therapy? Behavioral therapy is rooted in the principles of behaviorism, a school of thought focused on the idea that we learn from our environment. This approach emerged during the early part of the 20th-century and became a dominant force in the field for many years. Edward Thorndike was one of the first to refer to the idea of modifying behavior. The history of behavior therapy techniques can be traced back to the mid-20th century. Joseph Wolpe, Hans Eysenck, B. F. Skinner, Aaron Beck, and Albert Ellis were among other pioneers in the field; Beck and Ellis pioneered cognitive- behavioral therapy (CBT). The therapeutic strategies of Beck’s model attempted to alter negative thinking patterns, or maladaptive cognitions, to alleviate emotional trauma and discourage damaging behaviors. 

Unlike the types of modern therapy that are rooted in insight (such as psychoanalytic therapy and humanistic therapies), behavioral therapy is action-based. Because of this, behavioral therapy tends to be highly focused. The behavior itself is the problem, and the goal is to teach people new behaviors to minimize or eliminate the issue. Behavioral therapy suggests that since old learning led to the development of a problem, then new learning can reverse it.

A good therapist interacts with their patient to identify thought patterns that either cause or contribute to unhealthy activities and beliefs. The goal is to replace the problematic thoughts and actions with healthy ones in the specific real-world situations the person experiences in day-to-day living. It often takes much practice for the person to get in the habit of replacing negative thinking and behaviors with their positive counterparts.

What are the different types of behavioral therapy?

There are several different types of behavioral therapy modalities, and the type of modern therapy used can depend on a variety of factors, including the condition being treated and the severity of the person's symptoms. Here are some of the most common:

  • Applied behavior analysis uses operant conditioning to shape and modify problematic behaviors.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) relies heavily on behavioral techniques, but incorporates a cognitive element, focusing on the problematic thoughts behind behaviors.

  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is a form of CBT that utilizes both behavioral and cognitive techniques to help people learn to manage their emotions, cope with distress, and improve interpersonal relationships.

  • Exposure therapy utilizes behavioral techniques to help people overcome their fears of situations or objects through exposure to the source of fears, in addition to simultaneously practicing relaxation strategies. 

  • Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) focuses on identifying negative or destructive thoughts and feelings. Patients then actively challenge those thoughts and replace them with more rational, realistic ones.

  • Social learning theory centers on how people learn through observation. Observing others being rewarded or punished for their actions can lead to learning and behavior change.

Behavioral therapy techniques

In order to understand how behavioral therapy works, it is important to know more about the basic principles that contribute to behavioral therapy. The techniques used in this type of treatment are based on the theories of classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning involves forming associations between stimuli by pairing previously neutral stimuli with a stimulus that automatically evokes a response. After repeated pairings, an association is formed, and the previously neutral stimulus will come to evoke the response on its own. 

Aversion Therapy

Aversion therapy involves pairing an undesirable behavior with an aversive stimulus in the hope that the unwanted behavior will eventually be reduced. For example, someone with alcoholism might take Antabuse (disulfiram), a drug that causes severe symptoms (such as headaches, nausea, anxiety, and vomiting) when combined with alcohol. This will create an unpleasant and unwanted association with the undesired behavior, and hopefully, decrease or eliminate it. 


Flooding is a process that involves exposing patients to fear-invoking objects or situations intensely and rapidly. During treatment, the individual is prevented from escaping or avoiding the situation. It is often used to treat phobias.

Systematic Desensitization

Systematic desensitization is a technique that requires the patient to make a list of fears, and then learn to relax while concentrating on these fears. Starting with the least fear-inducing item and working their way to the most fear-inducing item, patients systematically confront these fears under the guidance of a good therapist. Systematic desensitization is often used to treat phobias and other anxiety disorders.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning focuses on how reinforcement and punishment can be utilized to either increase or decrease the frequency of a behavior. Behaviors followed by desirable consequences are more likely to occur again in the future, while those followed by negative consequences become less likely to occur. Behavioral therapy process techniques use reinforcement, punishment, shaping, modeling, and related techniques to alter behavior. These methods have the benefit of being highly focused, which means they can produce fast and effective results.

Contingency Management

Contingency management: This approach uses a formal written contract between a client and a therapist mental health professional(or parent or teacher) that outlines behavior-change goals, reinforcements, rewards, and penalties. Contingency contracts can be very effective in producing behavior changes since the rules are spelled out clearly, preventing both parties from backing down on their promises.


Another way to produce behavior change is to stop reinforcing behavior eliminate the response. Time-outs are a perfect example of the extinction process. During a time-out, a person is removed from a situation that provides reinforcement. By taking away what the person found rewarding, unwanted behavior is eventually extinguished.

Behavior Modeling

Behavior modeling involves learning through observation, and modeling the behavior of others. Rather than relying simply on reinforcement or punishment, modeling allows individuals to learn new skills or acceptable behaviors by watching someone else perform those desired skills.

Token Economies

Token economies rely on reinforcement to modify behavior. Parents and teachers often use token economies, allowing kids to earn tokens for engaging in preferred behaviors and lose tokens for undesirable behaviors. These tokens can then be traded for rewards such as candy, toys, or extra time playing with a favorite toy.

What Behavioral Therapy Can Help With

Behavioral therapy can be utilized to treat a wide range of psychological conditions and disorders, including:

  • Alcohol and substance use disorders

  • Anxiety

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • Autism spectrum disorders

  • Bipolar disorder4

  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

  • Depression

  • Eating disorders

  • Panic disorder

  • Phobias

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Behavioral therapy is problem-focused and action-oriented, which makes it useful for addressing specific psychological concerns such as anger management and stress management. 

Benefits of behavioral therapy

Behavioral therapy is widely used and has been shown to be effective in treating a number of different conditions. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, in particular, is often considered the "gold standard" in the treatment of many disorders. 

How well behavioral therapy works depends on factors such as the specific type of treatment used as well as the condition that is being treated. Overall, research has found that approximately 75% of people who try psychotherapy experience some type of positive improvement. This does not mean that CBT or other behavioral approaches are the only types of therapy that can treat mental illness. It also doesn't mean that behavior therapy is the right choice for every situation.

Anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and phobias, for example, often respond well to behavioral treatments. However, researchers found that the effectiveness of behavioral therapy, specifically CBT, in the treatment of substance use disorders can vary depending on the substance being misused.

The high success rate for behavioral therapy is a huge benefit when considering treatment. It is also very focused on producing results in a relatively short period of time, which also makes it an ideal treatment.

Behavioral therapy may not always be the answer

Behavioral therapy is an extremely powerful and effective tool, but it might not be right for every patient and case. When treating certain psychiatric disorders, such as severe depression and schizophrenia, behavioral therapy often must be used in conjunction with other medical and therapeutic treatments. Behavioral therapy can help clients manage or cope with certain aspects of these psychiatric conditions, but should not be used alone.

Behavioral treatments also tend to focus on current problems with functioning and may not fully appreciate or address the underlying factors that are contributing to a mental health problem. Behavioral approaches are centered on the individual working to change their behaviors. Some of these approaches, however, often don't address how situations and interpersonal relationships might be contributing to a person's problems.

How to find a therapist for behavioral therapy

If you are interested in behavioral therapy, you’ll first need to find a behavioral therapist. Some mental health professionals who can provide behavioral therapy include counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers.

If you don’t know where to start, ask for recommendations. If you’re comfortable, you can see if friends and families have a referral, or you can always ask your primary care physician for one.

You could also find a behavioral therapist by contacting your health insurance provider to find out if your plan covers behavioral therapy and, if so, how many sessions. They can also provide you with a list of referrals who are in the network and take your insurance. Advekit is a great place to easily get matched with a behavioral therapist based on your unique goals and needs. 

Once you’ve found the right therapist, set goals for your treatment. Knowing what you hope to accomplish can help you, and your therapist creates an effective treatment plan. Lastly, be an active participant. In order for behavioral therapy to be effective, you need to be committed to participating in the process.

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