Definition & Overview

Behavioral therapy is a treatment that focuses on changing negative behaviors that can potentially pose harm to the patient himself, as well as on dealing with the thoughts and feelings that lead to self-destructive behavior. It manages all types of behaviors, from learned ones to those influenced by one’s environment. To do so, behavioral therapists use a combination of techniques often used in the treatment of psychological issues.

Behavioral therapy is based on the belief that a person’s behavior is greatly associated with or affected by his or her psychological problems. Behavioral problems are therefore not considered as something that a person has, but as effects of a person’s learning, environment, and influences.

There are three types of behavioral therapy, namely:

  • Cognitive behavior therapy – Cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as behavioral modification, is a treatment method that targets the thoughts and feelings that fuel certain behaviors and cause mental health problems. This is often combined with psychotherapy treatment plans.

  • Applied behavior analysis – ABA, as it is known, is a conditioning method that uses positive reinforcements to modify a patient’s behavior. This is based on Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning theory and B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning theory.

  • Social learning therapy

Who Should Undergo & Expected Results

Behavioral therapy is an important treatment process for people who are suffering from certain behavioral problems, i.e. bad habits that are harmful to the person’s welfare and health. The goal of the therapy is to help and better equip the patient to cope with different challenges without turning to negative habits as a coping mechanism.

Some examples of disorders that can be treated using behavioral therapy are:

Behavioral therapy is also useful for those suffering from:

  • Autism
  • Substance abuse i.e. drug or alcohol abuse
  • Chronic pain, such as that caused by an existing disease or ongoing treatment for another condition
  • Emotional distress

In most cases, patients suffering from such conditions or going through any of the above problems can directly seek the care of a behavioral therapist or psychotherapist. Some patients, however, such as those suffering from schizophrenia, may be referred by their family doctor or general physician.

How Does the Procedure Work?

Behavioral therapy uses a variety of techniques, choosing the ones that are most potentially effective depending on the specific condition of each patient. If primary techniques are not working, the therapist can change them. Some of the techniques often used are:

  • Development of coping mechanisms
  • Role playing
  • Relaxation methods, i.e. breathing exercises
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Journal writing
  • Training in social skills
  • Response modification
  • Virtual reality therapy
  • Contingency contracting
  • Response costs
  • Token economies
  • Biofeedback
  • Shaping and grading task assignments
  • Habit reversal training

As a result, patients are expected to have a better quality of life and be in control of their reactions to their situation and any changes to it. They should also exhibit:

  • Better social skills
  • Better emotional expressions
  • Better management of pain
  • Reduction in self-destructive incidents or actions
  • Better adjustment and response to unfamiliar situations
  • Fewer outbursts

The therapy should also empower patients to recognize that they need medical help as well as to seek it when necessary. The end and most important, goal, however, is to prevent them from inflicting harm on themselves.

For the treatment to work, the therapy sessions should be continuous, until the treatment goals are achieved. These sessions may need to be very frequent, though, which raises the cost of behavioral therapy. The entire duration of the treatment will vary depending on the patient’s needs; some may need therapy only for a short-term period, while some may need it for an extended period. These sessions are also usually combined with medications, which should be taken exactly as they are prescribed to avoid any side effects. However, in most cases, the more a patient responds to the therapy, the less he or she tends to need supporting medications. Thus, behavioral therapists may gradually reduce the dosage of medications or slowly diminish the role of medicine in the overall treatment process.

Possible Complications and Risks

Behavioral therapy has very minimal risks while most of the complications are emotional in nature, such as uncontrolled bursts of anger, pain, and crying as a response to the therapy sessions where patients are required to explore their thoughts and feelings. But while emotional, such as bursts of sudden feelings, can bring physical exhaustion as an aftermath.

Other than this, however, behavioral therapy does not pose any serious complications and risks to the patients. It is a safe way of treating problems from their root cause, thus effectively managing all consequences, emotional or physical, of the said problems.


  • Rupke, S. American Family Physician, January 1, 2006.
  • "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Major Depression."
  • University of Michigan Depression Center: "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy."
  • Butler, A. The Clinical Psychologist, (1995).
  • "Treating Depression in Adolescents."
  • Wright, B. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 2002.
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