Behavioral Therapy

What is Behavioral Therapy?

Behavioral therapy, also known as behavior modification, consists of the belief that emotional problems are learned responses that can be unlearned. This type of therapy does not concentrate on exposing or interpreting the hidden reasons why the adverse behavior is occurring.  In other words, behavioral therapists do not focus on why the undesirable behavior is occurring rather they simply help you discover ways to change the behavior.

A subset of behavioral therapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy. This approach joins features of a behavioral therapy approach with a traditional cognitive restructuring approach. During cognitive-behavioral therapy, your therapist helps you identify thoughts that affect your behavior. Once he/she has helped you identify those thoughts, you and your therapist work together to find ways to alter the behaviors that are causing you grief.

The main goal of your cognitive-behavioral therapist is to help you see how your flawed schemas or core beliefs adversely influence your behaviors and negatively affect your quality of life. For example, if you suffer from anxiety, you may also develop depression because you are constantly worrying about what is going to happen next.

Your cognitive-behavioral therapist verifies the assumption that your flawed beliefs are affecting your behavior by asking you to name all the family and friends that you love and enjoy spending time with. The goal is to help you acknowledge all of the people in your life that love and value you. Your therapist accomplishes this task by exposing the irrationality of your negative beliefs. He/she teaches you more positive ways of thinking, which in turn changes the way you behave.

Your therapist also helps you reframe your thought processes so that instead of thinking the worse you turn the situation around and make it positive. For example, your therapist may ask you to repeat the following, “I am a likable person that is fun and interesting, therefore I should not have any problems talking with people at the event I am scheduled to attend.”

How Are Behavioral Therapists Trained?

Behavioral therapists are psychologists, clinical social workers, counselors or psychiatrists. It is important to note that while other health professionals may use behavioral therapy techniques, more complex and intensive behavioral changes should be treated by qualified, trained and experienced mental health professionals.

What Issues Are Treated With Behavioral Therapy?

Behavioral therapy is used to treat a variety of mental illnesses such as: substance abuse, aggression, anger issues, bulimia, anorexia, binge eating, excessive eating, orthorexia, generalized, social and specific phobias and anxiety. It is also used to treat medical issues such as incontinence and insomnia.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is used to treat mental and medical illnesses such as: mood disorders, agoraphobia, personality disorders, phobias, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder Alzheimer’s disease, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, arthritis, back problems and cancer.

Behavioral therapy techniques are often used in combination with psychotropic medications. Your treatment plan is based on your individual comfort level and the severity of your symptoms.

What Happens During Behavioral Therapy Sessions?

During the first behavioral therapy sessions, your therapist explains basic principles of behavioral therapy you. The goal of your therapist at this time is to establish a supportive relationship with you. He/she encourages you to take an active role in your own treatment and recovery. Your therapist also helps you identify faulty thinking patterns and change aversive behaviors. He/she prevents you from becoming too dependent on him/her. Your therapist wants you to be able to recognize and change your behavior once therapy has ended. Behavioral therapy typically last between 6 and 8 weeks and consists of outpatient individual or group sessions.

Common Techniques Used in Behavioral Therapy Include:

  • Self-Monitoring: During the initial stage of treatment, you are asked to document everything that happens in your day. You do this every day until your next session. During your next session, you and your therapist discuss your daily entries.
  • Schedule of Weekly Activities: During this stage you and your therapist work together to create new activities that will help you reframe your thought process, improve your behaviors and increase the likelihood of a positive experience.
  • Role Playing: During this stage your therapist teaches you more positive ways of coping with challenging situations through role play activities. You and your therapist act out various situations and you apply the skills you learned to those situations.
  • Behavior Modification: During this stage, you receive praise for altering your behavior and demonstrating more positive behaviors.

Is Behavior Therapy Effective?

Yes, cognitive behavioral therapy has proven effective for depression. It is also proven effective for mood disorders, anxiety, personality disorders, bulimia, anorexia, binge eating, substance abuse, tics and psychosis.


Barbara Woodward Lips Patient Education Center. (2010). Understanding psychotherapy for adults. Rochester, MN: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.

Goldfarb, R. (2006). Operant conditioning and programmed instruction in aphasia rehabilitation. The Journal of Speech and Language Pathology – Applied Behavior Analysis, 1(1), 56–65.

Martin, G. & Pear, J. (2007). Behavior modification: What it is and how to do it. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.


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