Behavioral therapy is an effective treatment method that encompasses many types of cognitive behavioral approaches. Therapists use behavioral therapy to help people make important life changes by examining the way behaviors impact wellness and utilizing evidence-based techniques to change maladaptive behaviors.
What Is Behavioral Therapy?
As we explore this treatment modality, it is natural to start with the most basic question: What is behavioral therapy? Behavioral therapy is a type of treatment that focuses on the ways our behaviors and decisions impact us. In this way, behavioral therapy helps people examine the ways their patterns of behavior may negatively influence their daily life. Two key principles that underpin many behavioral therapy methods are classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
Classical conditioning is the involuntary learned association of one stimulus to a separate behavior or outcome. The classic example of this is Ivan Pavlov’s dog experiment, where Pavlov trained dogs to associate the sound of a metronome with the expectation of food. In this experiment, repeatedly linking two separate stimuli formed so strong an association that the previously neutral stimuli (metronome) caused the dog to salivate.
Operant conditioning involves reinforcing a desired behavior by administering a favorable reward whenever the behavior occurs in the hopes of increasing the frequency of the behavior. This practice is based on the theory that people will respond favorably when behaviors are reinforced adequately.
Behavioral Therapy Techniques Used in Addiction Treatment
Behavioral therapy techniques vary depending on the specific needs of the individual in treatment. Behavioral therapy techniques for addiction are also tailored to meet the needs of the person being treated. There are additional behavioral family therapy techniques for families to address problematic family dynamics and behaviors.
Some of the most common forms of behavioral therapy are cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, systematic desensitization, group therapy, contingency management and motivational interviewing.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a broad category of treatment options based around the idea that thought, behavior and emotion influence are interconnected. By understanding and altering the thoughts that drive maladaptive feelings and behaviors, people can improve their overall well-being and functioning.
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) techniques involve mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness and emotional regulation. These skills make it particularly helpful for substance use disorders, as it allows clients to understand the roots of old behaviors, make changes to them and find alternative ways to cope with discomfort.
- Systematic Desensitization
Systematic desensitization uses behavioral modification and controlled stimuli to reduce an individual’s response to stressful situations gradually. People often work with therapists on systematic desensitization as a part of exposure therapy or to address post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Group Therapy
Group therapy can be a beneficial avenue for those living with mental health conditions or addiction who could benefit from peer support. Group work can offer accountability and a sense of community to those who may otherwise feel isolated.
- Contingency Management
The contingency management model is based on the idea that those in treatment benefit from rewards for their success. Substance abuse treatment modalities frequently utilize contingency management in the early stages of recovery until the value of sobriety becomes self-fulfilling.
- Motivational Interviewing
Motivational interviewing can be used to help people explore their motivations and improve their readiness for change.
What Is Behavioral Therapy Used to Treat?
Behavioral therapy is used to treat a variety of conditions that require the examination of behaviors that may negatively influence one’s life. Sometimes during the course of behavioral therapy, people can uncover thoughts and feelings that they had not recognized before. As these observations are made and behaviors shift, people’s circumstances tend to improve.
Who Is Behavioral Therapy Ideal For?
While behavioral therapy can be used to address a variety of mental health treatment needs, there are particular conditions that benefit from this type of treatment most. These conditions respond because of the intentional change in behavioral responses, which then illicit other changes in thoughts, emotions and patterns of behavior. The chain reaction that these outcomes create is what makes behavioral therapy approaches so successful.
The conditions behavioral therapy can be used to treat include:
- Personality Disorders: Borderline personality disorder is commonly treated with dialectical behavioral therapy. DBT helps clients develop specific skills, such as emotion regulation, stress tolerance and mindfulness, to offset and manage the symptoms of many personality disorders.
- Anxiety Disorders: Behavioral therapy for panic disorder and behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders are especially beneficial because they help build tolerance to distressing emotions while encouraging new behaviors that empower people to regain a sense of control.
- Eating Disorders: Dialectical behavioral therapy for binge eating disorder can be a helpful intervention, as it helps people explore the underlying causes of bingeing and learn alternative ways of managing difficult emotions.
- Substance Use Disorders: Behavioral therapy for addiction, specifically dialectical behavioral therapy for substance use disorders, is evidence-based and highly effective. Behavioral therapy helps people identify triggers for substance use and develop urge surfing techniques as well as alternative coping strategies.
Effectiveness of Behavioral Therapy
How effective is behavioral therapy? Behavioral therapies are evidence-based and highly effective. The effectiveness of behavioral therapy can best be measured by the benefits of treatment.
Benefits of Behavioral Therapy
The benefits of behavioral therapy can vary from person to person. Common benefits include:
- Reduction of distressing symptoms
- Learned and practiced behavioral modification
- Greater sense of empowerment and control
Limitations of Behavioral Therapy
Limitations of behavioral therapy are largely dependent on the expected outcome of treatment and one’s readiness for change. If one has a variety of barriers to treatment, it can be difficult to maintain perseverance. Behavioral therapy can help address symptoms of a broad range of conditions, but with complex conditions such as PTSD, additional treatment modalities are usually required.
Behavioral therapy approaches often benefit from the use of complementary therapies to support recovery and healing. Treatments such as biofeedback and relaxation strategies can be helpful in a holistic approach to healing. Mind/body techniques, such as meditation and progressive muscle relaxation, can also benefit those who are participating in behavioral therapy.
Key Points: Understanding Behavioral Therapy & Your Recovery
- Behavioral therapy utilizes techniques to identify and explore behaviors that negatively influence quality of life
- Alternative behaviors are employed that better serve the individual’s needs and emotional health
- Behavioral therapy is an evidence-based treatment modality that can treat a number of conditions
Addiction and mental health challenges can be difficult, but you don’t have to face them alone. If you or a loved is living with a substance use or co-occurring mental health disorder, evidence-based care is available. Call The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health today for more information.
Carol, Kathleen M. Ph.D; Onken, Lisa S. Ph.D. “Behavioral Therapies for Drug Abuse.” NCBI, August 2005. Accessed July 21, 2019.
Cherry, Kendra. “What is Classical Conditioning?” VeryWellMind.com, June 24, 2019. Accessed July 21, 2019.
Learning-theories.com. “Classical and Operant Conditioning (Skinner).” Accessed July 21, 2019.
DrugAbuse.gov. “Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).” Accessed July 21, 2019.