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What is Behavioral Therapy

What is behavioral therapy? Read on to learn more about behavioral therapy, its role, and various therapies for treating mental health disorders.

What Is Behavioral Therapy?

The study of behavioral therapy refers to psychotherapy that aims to help people change their behavior. It is based on the idea that our thoughts and emotions play a role in our behavior and that we can change our behavior by changing our thoughts and emotions.

Behavioral Therapy

History of Behavioral Therapy

The roots of behavioral therapy can be traced back to the work of B. F. Skinner, a psychologist who studied operant conditioning, which is the process by which we learn to associate certain behaviors with certain consequences. Skinner’s work led to the development of behaviorism; a school of thought focused on observable behavior rather than mental states. Behaviorists believed that all behaviors were learned and could be unlearned or changed. 1

Over time, the focus on behavioral therapy shifted from changing behavior to understanding the thoughts and emotions that contribute to it. This change was influenced by the work of Albert Ellis, a psychologist who developed cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is a type of therapy that combines behavioral and cognitive techniques. 2

What Can Behavioral Therapy Help?

Behavioral therapy can be used to treat a wide variety of issues. Conditions and experiences behavioral therapy can benefit include:

Scope of Behavioral Therapy

A trained therapist usually conducts behavioral therapy in an individual or group setting. The length of treatment varies depending on the type of issue being treated and the severity of it.

Behavioral therapy can effectively treat mental health disorders and other issues. If you are considering behavioral therapy, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional to see if it is right for you.

Who Can Benefit From Behavioral Therapy?

Behavioral therapy can be an effective treatment for people of all ages struggling with mental health issues, relationship problems, or other issues. It is a good option for people who want to change their behavior but do not want to take medication.

Types of Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy is a broad term that covers many different approaches to treatment. Some of the most common types of behavioral therapy will be detailed below.

Applied Behavior Analysis 

This approach focuses on changing specific behaviors that are causing problems. It is often used to treat autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

This approach focuses on helping people identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that may be contributing to their mental health problems.

Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy 

This approach uses play to help children identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

This approach combines elements of CBT with mindfulness techniques. It is often used to treat conditions like borderline personality disorder and eating disorders.

Exposure Therapy

This approach helps people confront their fears in a safe and controlled environment to learn to manage their anxiety.

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)

Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), developed by Albert Ellis in the 1950s, is based on the premise that our thoughts, rather than our external circumstances, lead to our feelings and actions.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory is a type of behavioral therapy that suggests that people can learn new behaviors by observing others around them.

Techniques Used in Behavioral Therapy

Several different techniques can be used in behavioral therapy. The therapist will work with the individual to choose the best approach based on the specific goals and needs of the patient. Some of the more common techniques used in behavioral therapy include:

Classical Conditioning

This technique is based on the work of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. In classical conditioning, a patient is exposed to a stimulus (i.e., a particular sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch) that elicits a reflexive response (i.e., a startle reflex). The patient then learns to associate the stimulus with the reflexive response.

Types of classical conditioning include:

  • Aversion Therapy: Aversion therapy is a type of classical conditioning used to help patients overcome phobias or other addictions. In aversion therapy, the patient is exposed to the stimulus (i.e., the phobia-inducing object or situation) while simultaneously experiencing an unpleasant sensation (i.e., electric shocks, nausea-inducing drugs, or bad taste). The patient eventually learns to associate the stimulus with the unpleasant sensation and, as a result, reduces or eliminates the fear or addiction.
  • Flooding: Flooding is a behavioral therapy technique in which the person is exposed to the feared object or situation for a prolonged period to desensitize them. This can be done in vivo, which means in real life, or imaginably, which means by having the person imagine the feared object or situation. 3
  • Systematic Desensitization: Systematic desensitization is a behavioral therapy technique that involves gradually exposing the person to the feared object or situation while they are in a relaxed state.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs because of the consequences of a behavior. The most common form of operant conditioning is positive reinforcement, which is when a pleasant consequence follows a behavior (e.g., being given a treat) and increases that behavior.

Contingency Management

Contingency management is behavior therapy focusing on changing environmental factors reinforcing problematic behaviors.


Extinction is a process in which a learned behavior is extinguished or stopped through the repeated absence of reinforcement.

Behavior Modeling

Behavior modeling is behavior therapy that involves observing and imitating the behavior of the desired role model.

Token Economies

One popular technique used in behavioral therapy is called a “token economy.” In a token economy, people earn tokens for completing desired behaviors. These tokens can then be exchanged for things the person wants, such as privileges or rewards. 4

What Can Behavioral Therapy Help With?

Behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that can help people manage their mental health by changing their behaviors. It can be used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including:

Bipolar Disorder

This disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings, from manic episodes of euphoria and hyperactivity to depressive episodes of sadness and apathy.

Alcohol and Substance Use Disorders

These disorders are characterized by an inability to control one’s use of alcohol or other substances, despite negative consequences.


Patients who suffer from anxiety often find behavioral therapy to be helpful. This is because behavioral therapy can help patients understand and change the thoughts and behaviors contributing to their anxiety.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Patients with ADHD often have difficulties with impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

BPD is a mental illness that is characterized by instability in mood, behavior, and relationships. People with BPD often have difficulty regulating their emotions and may experience extreme mood swings.


Behavioral therapy can also help patients who suffer from depression. This is because behavioral therapy can help patients understand and change the thoughts and behaviors contributing to their depression.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are characterized by an obsessive focus on food, weight, and appearance. This can lead to dangerous eating behaviors like crash dieting, purging, or binge eating.

Is Behavioral Therapy Effective?

Behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective in treating a wide variety of mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and addiction.

Benefits of Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy has several benefits. It is usually shorter than other types of therapy, such as psychoanalysis or cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Behavioral therapy is also flexible. It can be adapted to meet the needs of everyone and unlike medication, it does not have any side effects. Behavioral therapy is usually done in a one-on-one setting, but it can also be done in group therapy or online. This is meant to ensure that everyone participating, is comfortable in their environment.

Learn More with Genesis Recovery

At Genesis Recovery, we offer a variety of therapies to help our patients heal from addiction and mental health disorders. We invite you to contact us today to learn more about how we can help you or your loved one.


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