Behavioural Therapy

Behavioural Therapy

Behavioural therapy is focused on human behaviour and looks to eradicate unwanted or maladaptive behaviour. This type of therapy is usually used for those with behavioural problems or mental health conditions that involve unwanted behaviour, such as addictions, anxiety, phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder.


Practitioners of behavioural therapy believe that behaviour is learned and can therefore be un-learned via therapy. As well as the behaviour itself, behavioural therapists look at the thoughts and feelings that lead to the behaviour, or occur as a result of the behaviour to understand it on a deeper level. There are certain issues that respond particularly well to this type of therapy.


How does behavioural therapy work?

Behavioural therapy is an action-based therapy that looks to foster positive behaviour change. Other therapies such as psychoanalytic therapy tend to be more focused on insight and delving into the past. In behavioural therapy, the past is still important as it often reveals where and when the unwanted behaviour was learned, however it looks more so at present behaviour and ways in which it can be rectified.


The premise behind behavioural therapy is that behaviour can be both learned and un-learned. The goal is to help the individual learn new, positive behaviours which will minimise or eliminate the issue. There are various ways this can be done depending on the problem itself.



There are two key principles that form the foundations of behavioural therapy - classical conditioning and operant conditioning.


Classical conditioning

Behavioural therapy that is based on classical conditioning uses a number of techniques to bring about behaviour change. Originally this type of therapy was known as behaviour modification, but these days it is usually referred to as applied behaviour analysis. The various methods of changing behaviour include:

  • Flooding - involves exposing the individual to objects/situations they are afraid of in an intense and fast manner. The longer this continues with nothing bad happening, the less fearful the person becomes. This is generally used for those with phobias and anxiety, and may only be suitable for certain situations.
  • Systematic desensitisation - this is similar to flooding, however it is more gradual. The therapist asks the individual to write a list of fears they have., and then the therapist will teach relaxation techniques for the individual to use while thinking about the list of fears. Working their way up from the least fear-inducing item to the most fear-inducing item - the therapist will help the individual confront their fears in a relaxed state.
  • Aversion therapy - this process pairs undesirable behaviour with some form of aversive stimulus with the aim of reducing unwanted behaviour. An example of how this is when an alcoholic is prescribed a certain drug that induces nausea, anxiety and headaches when combined with alcohol. This means every time the person drinks, they get negative side effects. This hopes to put off that person from drinking to help them overcome their addiction.


Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning uses techniques such as positive reinforcement, punishment and modelling to help alter behaviour. The following strategies may be used within this type of therapy:

  • Token economies - this relies on positive reinforcement by offering individuals 'tokens' that can be exchanged for privileges or desired items when positive behaviour is exhibited.
  • Contingency management - this involves a written contract between the therapist and individual that outlines goals, rewards and penalties. For some, having this kind of clear agreement helps to change behaviour and add a sense of accountability.
  • Modelling - this involves learning through observation and imitation of others. Having a positive role model can give individuals something to aim for, allowing them to change their behaviour to match their role model's. This role model may be the therapist or someone the individual already knows.
  • Extinction - this involves removing any type of reinforcement to behaviour. Such as a disruptive child who is given a time-out or told to sit on the 'naughty step'. By removing them from the situation (and associated attention) the behaviour should stop.


How is behavioural therapy beneficial?

Behavioural therapy works best for mental health conditions that cause unwanted behaviour.

  • Addiction
  • Anxiety
  • Anger Management issues
  • ADHD
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Eating DIsorders
  • Phobias
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • OCD


In some cases behavioural therapy works well alone, however many find integrative therapies (like cognitive behavioural therapy) to be more appropriate.


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