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What is Behavioral Therapy?

Jessica Ellis
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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People seeking psychological help for anxiety, depression, phobias, or undesired habits have many courses of treatment from which to choose. While some may be interested in intense discussion sessions that attempt to dig out the root of their issue, others want assistance coming up with a practical plan to deal with their issues day by day. For this second group of people, behavioral therapy may be key to obtaining their goals.

Behavioral therapy is based on the idea that most behavior is learned by repeated responses to a stimulus. If a person has developed a destructive response pattern to certain situations, this pattern must be broken down and replaced with a positive response in order to overcome the problem. For instance, if Joe's response to stress at work is to drink heavily afterward, he has developed a destructive behavioral pattern. If Joe can work to replace his drinking with another stress-combating activity, such as exercising or meditating, he will be replacing a negative pattern with a positive one that achieves the same results.

Behavioral therapy is one tool a therapist can use to help a patient like Joe replace destructive patterns with positive ones. The theory behind this type of therapy is based, in part, on the famous experiments in conditioning conducted by Ivan Pavlov during the early 20th century. Conditioning theories suggest that by rewarding and affirming a desired behavior or response, people can change detrimental patterns of behavior and action to positive patterns.

Modern day behavioral therapy is also distinctly influenced by the work of Joseph Wolpe and B.F. Skinner in the 1950s. Expanding on Pavlov's experiments, these doctors worked to find additional areas where behavioral psychology could be applied. Wolpe used the principles of the therapy to treat cases of anxiety caused by specific fears; by giving the patient increasing doses of exposure to the object that caused their anxiety, he attempted to overcome their fear response through desensitization. Skinner focused on behavior modification through reward and punishment, often called “operant conditioning.”

For a time in the latter half of the 20th century, behavioral therapy fell out of fashion. Seen as heartless and an often over-simplified approach to dealing with deep emotional problems, behavioral modification lost favor as cognitive therapy rose in popularity. Cognitive therapy, developed in the 1960s, attempted to change destructive behaviors by getting patients to recognize their detrimental thoughts and behaviors and rationally fight them off with positive concepts.

Today, this therapy is applied to a wide variety of psychological conditions, from smoking or food addiction to intimacy issues between couples. The battle between cognitive and behavioral therapies is largely settled, as many therapists now use a blended form of the once-rival theories. Modern psychology is largely personalized, with therapist and patients working together to find the course of treatment that is most effective for their particular psychological issues.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for The Health Board. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By surfNturf — On Nov 22, 2010

Mutsy- Child behavioral therapy can also explore anger issues that are often destructive in school and in relationships as a whole.

A therapist might use journaling as a technique to bring out painful feelings that the child can not verbally express. This also allows the child to heal little by little and gives the therapist insight as to the source of the problem.

Another technique expressed in cognitive behavioral therapy involves homework. Often the patients will be told that they have to read a specific book, perform note taking during a session or even reviewing a taped session at home.

This technique allows the patient to discover on their own what their obstacles to success might be. A little self discovery is crucial in any successful therapeutic program.

By mutsy — On Nov 22, 2010

Icecream17- I think that that is a great technique.

Another technique in cognitive behavioral therapy in adolescents involve guided discovery.

In guided discovery, the therapist asks leading questions that will allow the patients to see their beliefs and ideas as distortions of reality.

For example, the therapist might ask an anorexic patient who believes that she is overweight to discuss her weight and to review the weight with actual medical guidelines which would prove that the patient is actually underweight.

This method also words with behavioral therapy for anxiety. For example, if a patient is excessively shy because of the fear of rejection, a therapist may ask hypothetical questions about possible social situations leading the patient to realize that the people around them don’t have negative views or will criticize the patient because they do not even know the patient well enough to make those judgments.

When the patient starts to understand this they become less intimidated in social situations.

By icecream17 — On Nov 22, 2010

GreenWeaver- A therapist may also use other techniques in order to provide his or her patient insight on their behavior.

A cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety session might involve validity testing. This is a technique in which the therapist asks the patient to express their opinions on something and defend the point.

People that suffer from anxiety often have a much skewed look at their own behavior and are so overly critical and fearful for the future that this is really the source of their despair.

By opening up these fallacies with their inability to prove the result that the patient believes, the patient slowly starts to put things in the proper perspective little by little.

Perspective and long term thinking is important for dealing effectively with cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety because people that suffer from this condition develop a catastrophic worse case scenario for everything and often have difficulty in realizing how minor the setback actually is with respect to other areas in their life.

This realization actually eases the anxiety a bit and starts to make the patient develop coping mechanisms for what they can control and release what they are unable to change.

By GreenWeaver — On Nov 22, 2010

I know that ADHD behavioral therapy involves a form of cognitive behavioral therapy training. Children that suffer from ADHD often are impulsive and do not adhere to social cues well.

They often talk out of turn and may blurt out and answer in class when the teacher may have instructed all of the children to raise their hand.

Their impulsivity is also a problem with regards to making friends. They can often be seen as very exuberant because they don’t know how to turn down their energy level.

This may turn off other children which lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Behavioral therapy in children like this involves talking about various situations and how to temper their behavior.

A therapist will often offer alternative solutions to a single situation that the child can remember which will often ease the impulsivity and allow them to progress.

Sometimes therapists will role play with the child so that the child could be trained to respond to different stimuli. This is often referred to as modeling.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis


With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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