What is behavioural therapy and how is it done?

Published on September 3, 2019

What is behavioural therapy and how is it done

Behavioural therapy is an umbrella term for different types of therapies to treat mental health disorders. It functions on the idea that all behaviours are learned and that unhealthy behaviour can be changed. The focus of treatment is often on current problems and how to change them.

An important feature of behavioural therapy is its focus on current problems and behaviour, and on attempts to remove behaviour, the patient finds troublesome.

Edward Thorndike was one of the first to refer to the idea of modifying behaviour. Other early pioneers of behaviour therapy included psychologists Joseph Wolpe and Hans Eysenck.

Who needs behavioural therapy?

People most commonly seek therapy for:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Panic disorders
  • Anger issues
  • Eating disorders
  • PTSD
  • OCD
  • Bipolar disorders
  • ADHD
  • Phobias
  • Substance abuse

Behavioural therapy draws from three areas:

Cognitive behavioural therapy РAn extremely popular concept, it combines behavioural therapy with cognitive therapy. Treatment is based around the fact that people’s thoughts and beliefs influence their actions and moods. So, by changing how one thinks, the behavioural patterns will also change in a positive manner.

Applied behaviour analysis Behavior analysis is a science, based on the foundations and principles of behaviourism. Division 25 of the American Psychological Division is devoted to the area of behaviour analysis.
According to Division 25, the fact that behaviour analysis focuses on behaviour as a subject makes it unique.
Social learning theory Centres on how people learn through observation. Observing others being rewarded or punished for their actions can lead to learning and behaviour change.

The foundation of behavioural therapy

Classical conditioning This theory suggests that a response is learned and repeated through immediate association. For example, if someone has a fear of dogs, then the therapist will keep the patient with a dog in a controlled environment to demonstrate that actually, no harm has happened, thereby alleviating the fear altogether. So, by associating a pleasant memory to an action, the behaviour changes.

Operant conditioning – This theory focuses on how reinforcement and punishment can be utilized to either increase or decrease the frequency of a behaviour. So, behaviours followed by desirable consequences are more likely to occur again in the future, while those followed by negative consequences become less likely to occur.

Therapies based on classical conditioning

Flooding – This involves exposing people to their fears by invoking objects and situations in rapid succession. This is like throwing someone at the deep end of the pool and is generally used to treat phobias. For example, if someone is claustrophobic, this method would include putting them in a closed elevator for a prolonged period of time. It is based on the fact that fear is a time-sensitive response and if one is made to face their fears for a good length of time, the fear recedes automatically.

Systematic desensitisation – This technique involves having a client make a list of fears and then teaching the individual to relax while concentrating on these fears. First, the patient is taught a deep muscle relaxation technique and breathing exercises. E.g. control over breathing, muscle detensioning or meditation. Next, the individual creates a ranked list of fear-invoking situations. Starting with the least fear-inducing item and working their way up to the most fear-inducing item, the client confronts these fears under the guidance of the therapist while maintaining a relaxed state.

Aversion Therapy – This process involves pairing an undesirable behaviour with an aversive stimulus in the hope that unwanted behaviour will eventually be reduced. Aversion therapy involves associating such stimuli and behaviour with a very unpleasant unconditioned stimulus, such as an electric shock. For example, in the case of a patient suffering from alcoholism, what is often done is to require the client to take a sip of alcohol while under the effect of a nausea-inducing drug. Sipping the drink is followed almost at once by vomiting. In future, the smell of alcohol produces a memory of vomiting and should stop the patient wanting a drink.

Therapies based on operant conditioning

Token economies – This type of behavioural strategy relies on reinforcement to modify behaviour. Clients are allowed to earn tokens that can be exchanged for special privileges or desired items. Parents and teachers often use token economies to reinforce good behaviour.

Modelling – This technique involves learning through observation and modelling the behaviour of others. The process is based on Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, which emphasizes the social components of the learning process. Rather than relying simply on reinforcement or punishment, modelling allows individuals to learn new skills or acceptable behaviours by watching someone else perform those desired skills.

If you think you or your loved ones may be needing behavioural therapy for any of the above-mentioned conditions, seek professional help immediately. For a safe, unbiased and non-judgemental space to talk about your anxieties, please book an appointment with us at Tranquil Minds.