As its name suggests, behavioural therapy is focused on human behaviour and looks to eradicate unwanted or maladaptive behaviour. Typically this type of therapy is used for those with behavioural problems or mental health conditions that involve unwanted behaviour. Examples of this include addictions, anxiety, phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Practitioners of behavioural therapy believe that behaviour is learned and can therefore be un-learned via therapy. As well as the behaviour itself, behavioural therapists will look at thoughts and feelings that lead to the behaviour or occur as a result of the behaviour to understand it on a deeper level. There are certain issues that respond particularly well to this type of therapy as well as the associated integrated forms, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
On this page
What is behavioural therapy?
Behavioural therapy is an action-based therapy that looks to foster positive behaviour change. Other therapies such as psychoanalytic therapy tend to be more focused on insight and delving into the past. In behavioural therapy, the past is still important as it often reveals where and when the unwanted behaviour was learned, however it looks more so at present behaviour and ways in which it can be rectified.
The premise behind behavioural therapy is that behaviour can be both learned and un-learned. The goal is to help the individual learn new, positive behaviours which will minimise or eliminate the issue. There are various ways this can be done depending on the problem itself. The main disciplines of behavioural therapy are:
- Applied behaviour analysis – Where behaviour change is instigated using operant and/or classical conditioning and positive reinforcement.
- Cognitive behaviour therapy – An integrative therapy that combines elements of behavioural therapy with cognitive therapy.
- Social learning theory – A theory that revolves around the nature of imitation and learning.
Principles of behavioural therapy
There are two key principles that form the foundations of behavioural therapy - classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
Behavioural therapy that is based on classical conditioning uses a number of techniques to bring about behaviour change. Originally this type of therapy was known as behaviour modification, but these days it is usually referred to as applied behaviour analysis. The various methods of changing behaviour include:
Flooding is a process generally used for those with phobias and anxiety and involves exposing the individual to objects/situations they are afraid of in an intense and fast manner. An example of this would be exposing a person who is afraid of dogs to a dog for an extended period of time. The longer this continues with nothing bad happening, the less fearful the person becomes.
The idea is that the person cannot escape the object/situation during the process and therefore must confront their fear head on. Obviously this method can be disconcerting and may only be suitable for certain situations.
This technique works on a similar premise to flooding, however it is more gradual. The therapist would begin by asking the individual to write a list of fears they have. Once this list is written, the therapist will teach relaxation techniques for the individual to use while thinking about the list of fears. Working their way up from the least fear-inducing item to the most fear-inducing item - the therapist will help the individual confront their fears in a relaxed state.
An example of this would be a person who is afraid of small spaces. They may start by thinking about a small space or looking at an image of a small space while utilising relaxation techniques, and work their way up to being in a small space. This pairing of the fear-inducing item and newly learned relaxation behaviour aims to eliminate the phobia or anxiety.
This process pairs undesirable behaviour with some form of aversive stimulus with the aim of reducing unwanted behaviour. An example of how this is commonly used is when an alcoholic is prescribed a certain drug that induces nausea, anxiety and headaches when combined with alcohol. This means every time the person drinks, they get negative side effects. This hopes to put off that person from drinking to help them overcome their addiction.
Operant conditioning uses techniques such as positive reinforcement, punishment and modelling to help alter behaviour. The following strategies may be used within this type of therapy:
This strategy relies on positive reinforcement - offering individuals 'tokens' that can be exchanged for privileges or desired items when positive behaviour is exhibited. This is a common tactic used by parents and teachers to help improve the behaviour of children.
A more formal approach, contingency management involves a written contract between the therapist and individual that outlines goals, rewards and penalties. For some, having this kind of clear agreement helps to change behaviour and add a sense of accountability.
Modelling involves learning through observation and imitation of others. Having a positive role model can give individuals something to aim for, allowing them to change their behaviour to match their role model's. This role model may be the therapist or someone the individual already knows.
Extinction works by removing any type of reinforcement to behaviour. An example of this would be a disruptive child who is given a time-out or told to sit on the 'naughty step'. By removing them from the situation (and associated attention) the behaviour should stop. This premise can be carried across to adults too - however the 'naughty step' will probably be given a different name.
Behavioural therapy for mental health issues
Behavioural therapy works best for mental health conditions that cause unwanted behaviour. Examples of this would be addiction, anxiety, phobias and OCD. In some cases behavioural therapy works well alone, however many find integrative therapies (like cognitive behavioural therapy) to be more appropriate.
If you want to find out more about which therapy type would suit you best, it is recommended that you speak to a medical professional such as a doctor or a counsellor for further details.
You may also be interested in
What our experts say
- Choosing a counsellor
Nikki Shephard (FdSc, MBACP)19th October, 2016
- Five questions to ask if you're considering counselling
Matt Fox - Psychosynthesis Counsellor MBACP (Accred)30th November, 2014
- How helpful is CBT?
Gherardo Della Marta BACP Reg counsellor in Holborn, Finchley and Queens Park23rd April, 2014
- Anxiety - The facts
Danny Hickling. BSc (Hons). Couns. MBACP. UKCP. Counselling & Psychotherapy1st April, 2014
- Angry outbursts cause fivefold increase in heart attack risk
Laura Morrissey Supervision & Counselling MBACP/BA(Hons) Accredited26th March, 2014