What is a Behavioral Approach to Psychotherapy?

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Behavior Modification in Therapy

There are a variety of approaches to psychotherapy and often overlap between them. The behavioral approach is a form of therapy that focuses on current behaviors and problems, along with what changes can be made to remove behaviors that are causing difficulties.

The core of the behavioral approach is that people learn from their environment and problems are caused by learned behaviors that aren’t effective. The goal of this approach to therapy is to reinforce behaviors that are effective while working to eliminate behaviors that aren’t wanted or are causing conflicts or problems.

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Theory Behind the Behavioral Approach

The underlying theory behind the behavioral approach is that when a person is born, the mind is a blank slate. All behavior is learned and therefore can be unlearned or changed.

New behaviors can be learned through two kinds of conditioning:

  • Classical conditioning – In this type of conditioning, responses are learned through association. This involves an involuntary response that is triggered by a stimulus, such as Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a dinner bell.
  • Operant conditioning – This refers to using reinforcement or punishment to increase or decrease a behavior.

Classical conditioning is passive on the part of the person learning new behavior, while in operant conditioning, the individual needs to perform a specific action in order to be rewarded or punished. Desensitizing is a form of therapy based on classical conditioning that may be used to decrease phobias. In operant conditioning, behavior that is rewarded is likely to be repeated and behavior that isn’t reinforced begins to weaken.

How the Behavioral Approach Works

Behavioral therapy is action-based therapy. This is in contrast to trying to determine the cause of ineffective behavior, such as attempting to identify unresolved issues that are rooted in childhood.

Rather than focusing on insight, this type of therapy focuses on finding new ways of behaving by using the same learning strategies that led to the development of unwanted behaviors. Since the old approach to learning has resulted in behaviors that don’t work, the goal is to learn new behaviors that are more effective.

Who Might Benefit from a Behavioral Approach?

The behavioral approach is also known as behavior modification. It can be effective for people of all ages who struggle with a variety of challenges.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) uses the behavioral approach combined with looking at the role thoughts play in improving mood and functioning. The theory behind CBT is that thoughts and perceptions influence behavior. Identifying and changing harmful thoughts is the first step toward changing ineffective behavior.

Examples of conditions that may improve using CBT include:

The behavioral approach targets ineffective behavior that is occurring in the present, rather than trying to figure out why a person does what he or she does. Since the focus isn’t on trying to decipher everything that happened in the past, treatment using this approach may not take as long as other approaches.

Behaviors that involve avoiding situations such as irrational phobias can be modified by working to remove the fear response. Substance abuse and alcoholism may improve using a form of behavior therapy known as aversion therapy. This type of therapy aims to teach an individual to associate drugs or alcohol with unpleasant feelings rather than pleasurable feelings. This isn’t the only way. In fact, a much bigger part of treating substance use disorders is using CBT to treat the underlying mental health condition like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc., and address the distorted thoughts associated with substance abuse.

Whenever an individual is behaving in ways that are ineffective, behavior therapy may be considered as a possible approach to treatment. Behavior therapy techniques may be used to help develop new skills and to reinforce desired behavior.  Many types of problematic behaviors can be modified or changed with the help of a therapist who is trained in using the behavioral approach.

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