Behavioral Therapy: Techniques and Effectiveness | hers (2023)

Behavioral Therapy: Techniques and Effectiveness | hers (1)

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 8/18/2022

Sometimes our daily lives can become overwhelming. Or perhaps we find ourselves feeling anxious or in a low, depressed mood more often than normal.

This is where therapy and working with a mental health professional come in.

With the term “psychotherapy” coined in the 1800s, therapy has been around for a long time. Since then, several types of therapy have developed to address different mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and other issues.

A few different types of therapy fall under the category of behavioral therapy, an umbrella term for therapies that treat mental health disorders.

So exactly what is behavioral therapy? We cover everything you need to know about this therapy, along with its techniques, effectiveness and who could benefit from it.

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What Is Behavioral Therapy?

Behavioral therapy is a term to describe a broad range of techniques used to change behaviors that interfere with daily living.

Behavioral therapy is based on the principles of behaviorism, the school of thought that we learn from our environments and that our learned behaviors can be changed.

Rather than looking inward at emotions, cognition or mood — which are considered subjective — behavioral psychology believes that behaviors can be modified.

Behavioral therapy is action-based rather than insightful, such as psychoanalytic therapy for example. The “problematic” behavior was learned so therefore a new behavior can be learned to eliminate the previous issue.

Behaviorism first came about in the early 1900s with American psychologist Edward Thorndike being one of the first to refer to the idea of modifying behavior.

Behavioral Therapy Techniques

The techniques used in behavioral therapy are based on two theories: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning — automatic or unconscious learning — involves forming an association with a stimulus or something that triggers a response. Neutral stimuli are paired with a stimulus that naturally and automatically evokes a response. After repeated pairings, an association is formed and the previously neutral stimulus comes to evoke the response on its own.

One classic example: Pavlov’s dog. The neutral signal was the sound of a tone and the naturally occurring reflex was salivating in response to food. By associating the neutral stimulus (sound) with the unconditioned stimulus (food), the sound of the tone alone could make the dog salivate.

(Video) How Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Work?

Some techniques used in classical conditioning to alter behavior include:

  • Systematic desensitization. Systematic desensitization is a process that helps you to become less sensitive to certain triggers. You’re taught to replace fear responses with relaxation responses from previously taught breathing and relaxation practices.

  • Aversion therapy. Aversion therapy is often used to treat disorders like substance use disorder and alcohol use disorder. It works by teaching people to associate a stimulus that’s pleasant but unhealthy with an extremely unpleasant stimulus.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning focuses on reinforcement and punishment to either increase or decrease the behavior frequency. Behaviors followed by desirable consequences are more likely to occur again in the future, whereas ones followed by negative consequences are less likely to occur.

Techniques used in operant conditioning are:

  • Contingency management. This approach uses a formal written contract between a client and a therapist that outlines behavior-change goals, reinforcements, rewards and penalties.

  • Extinction. To produce behavior change, stop reinforcing behavior to eliminate the response. During time-outs for example, a person is removed from a situation that provides reinforcement. By taking away what the person found rewarding, unwanted behavior is eventually extinguished.

  • Behavior modeling. This technique involves learning through observation and modeling the behavior of others. Individuals learn new skills or acceptable behaviors by watching someone else perform those desired skills.

  • Token economies. This strategy relies on reinforcement to modify behavior. Parents and teachers let kids earn tokens for engaging in preferred behaviors and lose tokens for undesirable behaviors. Tokens can then be traded for rewards such as candy or a toy.

Types of Behavioral Therapy

There are several different types of behavioral therapy. The technique of behavioral therapy used can depend on the condition being treated and the severity of the person's symptoms.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

A common therapy, cognitive behavior therapy is a combination of two therapeutic techniques: cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy.

Cognitive therapy focuses on patterns of thought and helps you form a clear idea of your thoughts and expectations.

Behavioral therapy focuses on patterns of action and when combined with cognitive therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy is how your thoughts and beliefs influence your actions and moods.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy stemmed from what already existed in behavioral therapy but included an emphasis on the role of thought — or cognition — in our behaviors.

The premise of cognitive-behavioral therapy is that harmful or unhelpful ways of thinking can lead to negative behavior — or vice versa — which feeds back into destructive emotions and behaviors.

Cognitive behavior therapy aims to interrupt that cycle by learning to recognize dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors and then by learning to correct them.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a widely researched form of therapy and has repeatedly been shown to be a superior form of therapy when compared with other types.

Our guide on cognitive behavioral therapy covers more about this type of behavioral therapy as well as cognitive therapy.

Cognitive-Behavioral Play Therapy

Cognitive behavioral play therapy is commonly used as a treatment for mental health conditions in children. Arts and crafts, dolls and puppets or role-playing are used to help the child address problems and work out solutions while keeping them engaged.

Considered an “offspring” of cognitive therapy, cognitive behavioral play therapy combines the verbal interventions of cognitive therapy and the focus of action and play from play therapy.

(Video) What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

In some forms of play therapy, therapists may teach parents how to use play to improve communication with their children as well as teach the child how to cope well and achieve their defined goals.

Some of the potential benefits of play therapy are:

  • Taking responsibility for certain behaviors

  • Developing coping strategies and creative problem-solving skills

  • Self-respect

  • Empathy and respect for others

  • Alleviation of anxiety

  • Learning to fully experience and express feelings

  • Stronger social skills

  • Stronger family relationships

According to Play Therapy International, up to 71 percent of children referred to play therapy may experience positive change.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a type of psychotherapy that comes from behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy with more of an action-oriented approach.

ACT emphasizes acceptance as a way to deal with negative thoughts, emotions or circumstances that are appropriate responses to certain situations. Rather than trying to control painful emotions, clients instead learn mindful behavior, attention to personal values and commitment to changing their behavior.

Acceptance and commitment therapy involves six parts:

  • Being present. ACT encourages you to stay mindful of your surroundings and learn to shift your attention away from internal thoughts and feelings.

  • Self as context. This involves learning to see your thoughts about yourself as separate from your actions.

  • Values. These are the areas of your life that are important enough to you to motivate action. You’ll clarify fundamental hopes, values and goals.

  • Acceptance. This means allowing your inner thoughts and feelings to occur without trying to change them or ignore them.

  • Commitment. This process involves changing your behavior based on principles covered in therapy.

  • Cognitive defusion. Defusion is the process of separating yourself from your inner experiences. This allows you to see thoughts simply as thoughts, stripped of the importance that your mind adds to them.

Your therapist will help you learn how to apply these concepts to your life and make sure they are helping you become more aware of your behaviors and whether they are helpful or detrimental to your life.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

Dialectical behavioral therapy is a modified type of cognitive behavioral therapy to teach people how to live in the moment, develop healthy ways to cope with stress, regulate emotions and improve their relationships.

This type of behavioral therapy was created by Dr. Marsha Linehan from evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral therapies to treat suicidal behavior in women.

(Video) Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Interpersonal effectiveness

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) has been proven as a comprehensive treatment for borderline personality disorder, an emotional regulation disorder marked by suicidal behavior, depression, unstable personal relationships, and other symptoms.

DBT is effective at treating other mental health conditions such as eating disorders and substance abuse disorders.

DBT consists of four strategies:

  • Core mindfulness

  • Interpersonal effectiveness (improves relationships with others and yourself)

  • Emotional regulation

  • Distress tolerance

People receiving DBT are taught skills and coping strategies to help them lead healthier, happier lives.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy utilizes behavioral therapy techniques to help people overcome their fears of situations or objects. This type of therapy is useful for those who suffer from panic disorder, social anxiety disorder or phobias.

According to the American Psychological Association, the idea behind exposure therapy is that exposing people to stimuli that cause distress in a safe environment will help them decrease avoidance and overcome their fear.

Exposure therapy may help in four ways:

  • Emotional processing. Exposure therapy helps you create realistic beliefs about a feared stimulus.

  • Extinction. Exposure therapy can help you unlearn negative associations with a feared object or situation.

  • Habituation. Repeated exposure to a feared stimulus over time helps decrease your reaction.

  • Self-efficacy. Exposure therapy helps show you that you’re able to overcome your fear and manage your anxiety.

What Conditions Does Behavioral Therapy Treat?

Behavioral therapy is used for a wide range of mental health conditions and to help people with emotional issues.

Some mental health conditions include:

Is Behavioral Therapy Effective?

Although behavioral therapies are effective for different disorders such as anxiety disorders, it doesn’t mean behavior therapy is the right choice for every condition.

Of those who go through psychotherapy, about 75 percent benefit from this particular treatment.

Some studies support the use of play therapy in treating young children.

How effective behavioral therapy is depends on a variety of factors, including the specific type of treatment used and the condition being treated.

For some, medication may be a better alternative treatment option or in combination with behavioral therapy. Some healthcare professionals may prescribe an SSRI like fluoxetine for a patient struggling with panic disorder who is also going through cognitive-behavioral therapy. A combination of psychotherapy and medication can sometimes be the most effective treatment.

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Other Ways to Get Help

Behavioral therapy encompasses a range of different therapies, all designed to change behaviors that are detrimental to your life and well-being.

If you think you would benefit from a behavioral therapy technique or method, talk to your healthcare professional for recommendations.

You can also access professional help from your home using our online mental health platform, such as online therapy and psychiatry.

17 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. Marks S. (2017). Psychotherapy in historical perspective. History of the human sciences, 30(2), 3–16. Retrieved from
  2. Behaviorism. (n.d.). Psychology Today. Retrieved from
  3. Cognitive behavioral therapy - (2013, August 7). NCBI. Retrieved from
  4. McLeod, S. (n.d.). Edward Thorndike - Law of Effect. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from
  5. Rehman, I., Mahabadi, N., Sanvictores, T., & Rehman, C. I. (2021, August 27). Classical Conditioning. NCBI. Retrieved from
  6. Staddon, J. E., & Cerutti, D. T. (2003). Operant conditioning. Annual review of psychology, 54, 115–144. Retrieved from
  7. Tolin, D. F. (2016). Doing CBT: A comprehensive guide to working with behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. American Psychology Association. Retrieved from
  8. David, D., Cristea, I., & Hofmann, S. G. (2018). Why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Is the Current Gold Standard of Psychotherapy. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 4. Retrieved from
  9. Knell, S. M. (n.d.). Cognitive behavioral play therapy: Theory and applications. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from
  10. About Play Therapy - PTI. (n.d.). Play Therapy International. Retrieved from
  11. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. (2022, March 21). Psychology Today. Retrieved from
  12. Dindo, L., Van Liew, J. R., & Arch, J. J. (2017). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: A Transdiagnostic Behavioral Intervention for Mental Health and Medical Conditions. Neurotherapeutics : the journal of the American Society for Experimental NeuroTherapeutics, 14(3), 546–553. Retrieved from
  13. Chapman A. L. (2006). Dialectical behavior therapy: current indications and unique elements. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)), 3(9), 62–68. Retrieved from
  14. What Is Exposure Therapy? (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from
  15. Understanding psychotherapy and how it works. (2012, November 1). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from
  16. Senko, K., & Bethany, H. (2019). PLAY THERAPY: An Illustrative Case. Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 16(5-6), 38–40. Retrieved from
  17. How Do I Choose Between Medication and Therapy? (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from
(Video) Psychodynamic, Humanistic, Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy (Approaches to Therapy)

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.


What is the effectiveness of behavior therapy? ›

Is behavioral therapy effective? Behavioral therapy has successfully been used to treat a large number of conditions. It's considered to be extremely effective. About 75 percent of people who enter cognitive behavioral therapy experience some benefits from this treatment.

What are the important techniques of Behaviour therapy? ›

Some of the more well known types of treatments are: Relaxation training, systematic desensitization, virtual reality exposure, exposure and response prevention techniques, social skills training, modelling, behavioural rehearsal and homework, and aversion therapy and punishment.

Why are the techniques of behavior therapy important? ›

By applying various therapeutic strategies, behavior therapists attempt to alter these maladaptive cognitions as a way to reduce and eliminate emotional distress and unhealthy behaviors.

What therapy is most effective at changing behavior? ›

Numerous research studies suggest that CBT leads to significant improvement in functioning and quality of life. In many studies, CBT has been demonstrated to be as effective as, or more effective than, other forms of psychological therapy or psychiatric medications.

What are the four behavior therapy techniques? ›

What Are the Different Types of CBT?
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) ...
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) ...
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) ...
  • Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT)
28 Sept 2021

How is the effectiveness of therapy measured? ›

There are three main ways in which treatment effectiveness is measured: the patient's own impression of wellness, the therapist's impression, and some controlled research studies.

What are behavioral techniques? ›

Behavioral techniques are a core component of many evidence-based psychotherapies, including Prolonged Exposure, CBT for Insomnia, and CBT for Depression, just to name a few. These techniques have in common a focus on changing behaviors to improve mood and overall functioning.

What are the types of therapy techniques? ›

Approaches to psychotherapy fall into five broad categories:
  • Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies. ...
  • Behavior therapy. ...
  • Cognitive therapy. ...
  • Humanistic therapy. ...
  • Integrative or holistic therapy.

What are the three most important factors for therapy to be effective? ›

These factors are all proven to contribute to a more effective therapy experience.
The 3 Things That Influence Your Success in Therapy
  • Forming a strong bond with your therapist.
  • Setting clear goals together.
  • Committing to the process.
3 Feb 2020

What is the most important element that makes therapy effective? ›

The most important aspect of effective therapy is that the patient and the therapist work together to help the patient reach their goals in therapy. Q. Some therapists consistently produce better outcomes than others, regardless of treatment and patient characteristics.

What type of therapy is behavior therapy? ›

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on helping individuals change negative thought patterns that contribute to negative emotions. CBT helps people identify those negative thoughts and situations that cause them.

What is an example of behavior therapy? ›

In behavior therapy, parents and children learn to promote desirable behaviors and reduce unwanted behaviors. One common trap that families fall into is unintentionally rewarding the wrong behavior. For example, take the teen who has not finished his homework, but really wants to take the car.

What are examples of behaviour change techniques? ›

Examples of BCTs are as follows: “Prompts/cues,” “Information about health consequences,” “Incentive,” “Goal setting,” “Self-monitoring,” “Action planning,” “Behavioral rehearsal/practice,” “Graded tasks,” “Social support/encouragement,” “Persuasive communication,” and “Habit formation.”

What are the 3 pillars in behavioral therapy? ›

These pillars are identification, recognition, and management.
  • Identification. The first pillar of CBT is identification. ...
  • Recognition. The second pillar of CBT is recognition. ...
  • Management. The third pillar of CBT is management.
5 Jun 2020

What are the 5 P's in therapy? ›

They conceptualized a way to look at clients and their problems, systematically and holistically taking into consideration the (1) Presenting problem, (2) Predisposing factors, (3) Precipitating factors, (4) Perpetuating factors, and (5) Protective factors.

What is a successful outcome of therapy? ›

The best therapeutic outcomes occur when the clients are motivated and committed to the therapeutic process. The use of evidence-based practice in combination with a sound therapeutic relationship – the client and the therapist working collaboratively, also contribute to treatment success.

How many sessions of therapy are effective? ›

So how long does it typically take for treatment to work? Recent research indicates that on average 15 to 20 sessions are required for 50 percent of patients to recover as indicated by self-reported symptom measures.

Is therapy always effective? ›

No, therapy does not help “everyone,” but, there are all the variable to consider before deciding that therapy is for you or not. Today, we have the advantage of using medications in those serious situations where it is called for, to help make therapy more beneficial and available for those individuals who need that.

What are the 4 types of behaviors? ›

A study on human behavior has revealed that 90% of the population can be classified into four basic personality types: Optimistic, Pessimistic, Trusting and Envious. However, the latter of the four types, Envious, is the most common, with 30% compared to 20% for each of the other groups.

What is the most common method of therapy? ›

The most common type of therapy right now may be cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). As mentioned above, CBT explores the relationship between a person’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. It often focuses on identifying negative thoughts and replacing them with healthier ones.

How many therapy techniques are there? ›

The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes five different approaches to counseling: psychoanalysis, behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, humanistic therapy and integrative or holistic therapy.

Which therapy is considered the best? ›

Cognitive behavioral therapy is considered the gold standard in psychotherapy. Numerous clinical trials have found CBT to be effective for a spectrum of emotional health challenges, from anxiety and depression to addiction and schizophrenia.

What are two or three important qualities of a good therapist? ›

The Qualities of a Good Counselor
  • Communication skills. Communication skills will play a key role in your relationship with your clients. ...
  • Patience. Patience will become a critical trait as a counselor. ...
  • Confidence. ...
  • Non-judgmental. ...
  • Observant. ...
  • Listening Skills. ...
  • Trust. ...
  • Respectful.
21 Jun 2021

What is an effective therapy? ›

A therapy relationship that is characterized by client-therapist agreement on therapy goals, collaboration in the therapy process and a warm working relationship yields the best outcome.

What does effective therapy look like? ›

An effective therapist will challenge you and help you see things from a different perspective, even if it's hard to hear. They will give you homework that you may not like. For example, when I feel anxious, my reaction is to try to get rid of that anxiety any way that I can.

How is behavioral therapy used today? ›

Select strategies include strengthening self-awareness, stress relief techniques, and the development of coping skills for challenging situations. CBT has been shown to effectively treat several issues including anxiety disorders, depressing, phobias, and panic disorder.

What are positive behavior techniques? ›

9 Examples of Positive Behavioral Interventions
  • Routines. Set clear routines for everything you would like students to do in your classroom, rather than assuming that students know your expectations. ...
  • Breaks. ...
  • Silent Signals. ...
  • Proximity. ...
  • Quiet Corrections. ...
  • Special Tasks. ...
  • Positive Phrasing. ...
  • Behavior Statements.
26 May 2022

What are the 4 most common areas of behavioural change? ›

Let's take a look at four of the most common areas of behavior change and some behavior change interventions for each one.
  1. Nutrition. If you've ever tried a radical change in your diet and eating habits, you know how difficult it can be. ...
  2. Physical activity. ...
  3. Medication non-adherence. ...
  4. Insomnia.
3 Jun 2021

What are behavior intervention techniques? ›

Positive behavior intervention strategies include designing routines, implementing silent signals, assigning tasks, and setting expectations. These strategies help encourage positive behaviors from individuals while simultaneously suppressing negative behaviors.

What is the success rate of ABA therapy? ›

Ivar Lovaas proved that early intervention and intensive behavioral therapy, enabled children with Autism to achieve success. He concluded that 90% of children make substantial gains through ABA therapy (Lovaas, O. I. 55: 3-9).

What is the effective rate of cognitive behavioral therapy? ›

Research shows that CBT is the most effective form of treatment for those coping with depression and anxiety. CBT alone is 50-75% effective for overcoming depression and anxiety after 5 – 15 modules.

When is ABA most effective? ›

ABA works with people of all ages, but it is best to start as early as possible. Most children are between 2 and 6 years old when they begin ABA treatment.

How many hours of ABA is effective? ›

Key Takeaways. It's recommended that your child gets 2-5 hours of ABA therapy per day. Children with autism will need between 10-40 hours of ABA therapy per week. Parents should expect their child to receive 40-120 hours of ABA therapy per month.

Is ABA effective long term? ›

More than 20 studies have established that intensive and long-term therapy using ABA principles improves outcomes for many but not all children with autism. “Intensive” and “long term” refer to programs that provide 25 to 40 hours a week of therapy for 1 to 3 years.

Why is cognitive behavioral therapy so effective? ›

CBT is effective because it has the capacity to engage even the most serious problems. Therapists using CBT as a primary method for treating their clients report success with highly complex disorders like PTSD, specific phobias, generalized anxiety, social anxiety disorder, depressive disorder and many more.

When is cognitive behavioral therapy not effective? ›

In some cases cognitive behavior therapy stresses the therapy technique over the relationship between therapist and patient. If you are an individual who is sensitive, emotional, and desires rapport with your therapist, CBT may not deliver in some cases.

How long does it take for cognitive behavioral therapy to work? ›

A highly effective psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on how our thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes can affect our feelings and behavior. Traditional CBT treatment usually requires weekly 30- to 60-minute sessions over 12 to 20 weeks.


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