Behavior Therapy

Mental and emotional problems vary, as do the approaches used to treat them. Continue reading this article to learn more about the behavior therapy.

Mental and emotional problems vary, as do the approaches used to treat them. In the field of psychology, hundreds of forms of therapy are used to relieve the distress of people suffering from mental and emotional pain. These forms of therapy fit into a few general categories.

This article will explain the background methods used in behavior therapy.

Behavior Therapy

Behavior therapy, also called behavioral modification, uses people’s actions in the world as the access point for solving a variety of problems—not only behavioral problems but also problems involving thoughts and feelings. Behavioral psychologists presume that problem behaviors are caused by interactions between people and their environments. Problems occur when a person’s environment rewards damaging behaviors; over time, these behaviors become habits.

Behavior therapy is used to treat such dangerous habits as smoking, substance use, eating disorders, insomnia, and the inability to manage stress effectively. Behavior therapy can also be used to treat larger psychological disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder,  psychotic disorders, depression, anxiety, and personality disorders.

For example, to help a client with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a behavioral therapist might teach that individual, little by little, to tolerate a reasonable amount of dirt in their environment or to refrain from constantly washing their hands. This technique is called exposure therapy.

Behavior therapy can also be used to enhance positive behaviors, such as organization, involvement in sports, and boundary forming.

Origins Of Behavior Therapy In Psychology

Behavior therapy can be traced to the research of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, which was published in the 1920s and 1930s. Pavlov’s work focused on classical conditioning, which means learning through association. In classical conditioning, two stimuli(objects or events that produce a reaction) are linked together to produce a new response. In a famous experiment, Pavlov classically conditioned dogs to salivate when he rang a bell because the dogs learned to associate the presence of food with the sound of the bell.

Behavior therapy is also associated with the work of US psychologist B.F. Skinner, who studied operant conditioning in the 1930s. Operant conditioning means learning behavior through rewards and punishments. While working with patients in a psychiatric hospital, Skinner found that behaviors could be “shaped” (gradually changed) when positive behaviors were followed by desirable consequences and negative behaviors were followed by undesired consequences.

Behavior therapy was later established as a treatment method when the work of psychologists such as Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis resulted in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is based on the theory that people’s thoughts determine both their emotions and their behaviors. Therefore, when therapists help people change their thoughts, they can help them change their lives.

Significance Of Behavior Therapy

Behavior therapy is based on the belief that we are influenced by and learn from our environment. Hence, behavioral therapists help clients change unhealthy behaviors by focusing on observable actions, rather than on what is happening in the mind. Behavior therapy also focuses on concrete changes in the present rather than on insight into the past.

Components Of Behavioral Therapy Techniques

Specific types of behavior therapy include the following:

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the therapist helps the client identify unhealthy thought patterns. The therapist then helps the client understand how these patterns are associated with self-destructive beliefs, or schemas, which lead to both negative moods and destructive behaviors. With this understanding, the client learns to challenge unhealthy thoughts and replace them with healthier ones.

Flooding Therapy

Flooding therapy is a type of exposure therapy, meaning the therapist exposes the client to an object or event that they fear in a safe, controlled setting. The principle behind flooding therapy is that when a client learns that their fear won’t harm them, that fear will disappear, or be extinguished.

In flooding therapy, the client is not gradually exposed to the thing they fear; rather, they are “flooded” by that thing, meaning they are exposed to a large “dose.” For example, with a client who is afraid of snakes, the therapist might bring live snakes to a session and force the client to stay in the room with the snakes and the therapist for a full hour. The theory behind flooding is that initial fear responses are time-limited, and once the fear dies down and the client sees that they are not harmed, their fear will disappear.

Flooding may be used to treat phobias. Behaviorists believe that phobias are learned through association, meaning that a person learns to interpret an environmental stimulus (e.g., snakes) as dangerous through association (e.g., stepping on a snake and being startled or bitten). After the initial experience, the person becomes anxious that the experience will happen again; in extreme situations, this anxiety can become post-traumatic stress disorder. In exposure therapies such as flooding, clients are taught to relax during exposure in a safe environment.

Aversion Therapy

In aversion therapy, an undesired behavior is paired with an unpleasant stimulus to break an unwanted habit. A well-known example of aversion therapy has to do with substance use. When a client takes Antabuse, they become sick when they drink alcohol. This method creates an aversion to drinking, as the client learns to associate alcohol with feeling ill. Thus, this form of behavior therapy reinforces the breaking of unhealthy habits.

Systematic Desensitization

Like flooding, systematic desensitization (or gradual exposure therapy) is exposure therapy. However, it is both gentler and more gradual than flooding. Systematic desensitization focuses on relaxation, so the client learns to associate feared objects and events with a sense of safety and calm. Anxiety, panic, and phobias can be treated by teaching clients to relax their muscles, breathe deeply, and/or meditate while being exposed, little by little, to feared stimuli.

Gradual exposure means that fears are faced step by step. Suppose you are anxious about leaving your house. Using systematic desensitization, your therapist may advise you to start by getting dressed for an outing while breathing deeply and listening to soothing music. Next, you might be encouraged to relax your muscles while you step outside your door. Finally, you would practice visiting a close friend or family member, all the while making sure to keep your body relaxed. Throughout this process, you would be encouraged to visualize solutions to problems that might come up. This form of behavior therapy takes longer than flooding.


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