Therapists these days often try to help clients improve their mental health and overcome symptoms by changing maladaptive behaviors or improving environmental factors that lead to this behavior. Most of the techniques they used to change certain behaviors are usually related to behavioral therapy.
Behavioral therapy is a term that describes a wide range of therapies that use the principles of behaviorism in order to change irrational or undesirable behaviors into positive ones. The majority of the studies that aimed to explore the effectiveness of behavioral therapy prove that its techniques can help people deal with various types of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, panic disorders, OCD, PTSD, and more (e.g., Kodal et al., 2018). As a result, receiving behavioral therapy can be a helpful way to cope with a wide range of psychological struggles.
In this article, we’ll explore how behavioral therapy works, its benefits based on research, the types of therapies it includes, and the way counselors use it to help clients overcome their problems.
What is Behavioral Therapy?
Behavioral therapy is an umbrella term that describes a range of therapies that aim to change potentially harmful behaviors and promote desirable behaviors. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines behavioral therapy as a form of psychotherapy that is based on behaviorism principles such as classical and operant conditioning to reduce the symptoms of mental health disorders and change maladaptive behaviors.
Considering this definition, behavioral therapy is based on the idea that all types of behaviors are learned and, therefore, can be changed. Unlike traditional forms of psychotherapy that try to help individuals explore the underlying causes of their maladaptive behaviors, the focus of behavioral therapy is to eliminate the environmental factors that promote unhealthy behavior.
Some of the most common techniques used by therapists who provide behavioral therapy are systematic desensitization, modeling, biofeedback, behavioral rehearsal, reinforcement, punishment, shaping, and more.
How Does Behavioral Therapy Work?
As we already mentioned, behavioral therapy can be performed in various forms, using different techniques. However, regardless of the type of technique a therapist focuses on, the role of the behavioral therapist is to suggest activities that will help their clients integrate learned techniques into their daily lives and develop strategies to avoid developing the same maladaptive behavior patterns in the future.
In order for behavioral treatment to work, therapy sessions should be frequent and long. But the most important part is to choose adequate techniques based on the client’s needs. Therefore, if a therapist notices that after a few sessions the implemented techniques don’t help the individual change the maladaptive behavior, they can change the techniques and replace them with more potent ones.
Here are some of the techniques that are usually used by behavioral therapists:
- Systematic desensitization – A technique mainly used to reverse extreme aversions and phobias. It’s based on the principles of classical conditioning and integrates relaxation and breathing techniques.
- Aversion therapy – The main idea of aversion therapy is to teach people to associate a trigger with an unpleasant stimulus. It’s often used for substance use disorder.
- Behavioral modeling – Based on this technique, a person can learn new, positive behavior by observing and imitating other people’s behaviors. Behavioral modeling doesn’t require reinforcement or reward.
- Contingency management – In this case, behavioral therapists use reinforcement to replace negative behavior with positive one. This technique is especially effective with alcohol or substance use disorder (e.g., Lussier et al., 2006).
Most Effective Types of Behavioral Therapy
Since behavioral therapy is an umbrella term for various different types of therapies, there are a number of therapies that can be considered behavioral therapy. Let’s discuss some of the most effective and frequently used ones among them.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy is indeed the most popular type of behavioral therapy, used for a wide range of mental health disorders such as depression and other mood disorders, anxiety, phobias, PTSD, substance use disorder, ADHD, and more.
During CBT sessions, therapists use behavioral techniques such as systematic desensitization, progressive muscle relaxation, or exposure, but they also add cognitive elements like cognitive restructuring or unraveling cognitive distortions.
Findings of several meta-analyses prove the effectiveness of CBT for a wide range of mental health disorders (e.g., van Dis et al., 2019).
Rational-emotive behavior therapy (REBT)
Rational-emotional behavioral therapy is another type of behavioral therapy that aims to identify negative and irrational thoughts and feelings and replace them with more constructive and realistic ones.
REBT is based on the ABC model, which is a classic framework for restructuring irrational thoughts. According to this model, the three basic steps for replacing negative feelings and thoughts with positive ones are to focus on the Activating event, the Belief that describes a particular irrational thought, and its Consequence, which is an emotional response to the irrational belief.
Studies show that REBT techniques effectively help clients deal with anxiety, distress, and anger (David et al., 2017).
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
Acceptance and commitment therapy is a form of psychotherapy based on relational frame theory, which explains how people communicate and organize interpersonal messages. According to this theory, human cognition is based on the relational links between specific stimuli, which can be particular words, concepts, or images.
During ACT sessions, a therapist encourages a client to accept and embrace their thoughts and feelings instead of changing them. Therefore, this form of therapy often includes mindfulness techniques.
A 2020 randomized control trial suggests that ACT is an effective intervention to reduce the symptoms of social anxiety disorder, overcome emotion-related problems, and improve psychological flexibility (Khoramnia et al., 2020).
Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy
Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, or TF-CBT, is a specific form of CBT focused on people who have been impacted by a traumatic event. This type of behavioral therapy aims to help clients identify the impact of the trauma and develop adaptive strategies to deal with it. Generally, TF-CBT is used for children, and a therapist incorporates the principles of family therapy if a child is accompanied by a non-offending parent or a caregiver.
As a result of trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy, clients can modify their distorted patterns of thinking and change their negative behaviors. According to a 2021 study, TF-CBT is a safe and effective therapy for people who are diagnosed with PTSD (Peters et al., 2021).
Psychological Conditions Behavioral Therapy Can Help With
Behavioral therapy is used for treating various types of mental health conditions. According to studies, it’s most effective for the following psychological disorders:
- Anxiety Disorders
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Depression and other mood disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Eating disorders
- Panic disorder
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Somatoform disorders
Behavioral Therapy near Grand Rapids, Michigan
If you’re struggling with any of the above-mentioned mental health problems and looking for a professional therapist in Grand Rapids, MI, or Ada, MI, we suggest reaching out to licensed counselors at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids and scheduling a consultation.
Our professional therapists have extensive experience using a variety of research-based behavioral interventions to address your needs and assist you in resolving the issues you’re facing. So, don’t hesitate to contact our office or talk to us online to book your first appointment!