Behavioural Therapy

What is Behavioural Therapy?

Behavioural Therapy had its origins in the inception of the Behaviourism Movement popularised through the work of B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov. Some advocates still believe the workings of the human mind cannot be observed or measured. Behaviour, on the other hand, is tangible and can be measured. Any behaviour that can be learned can also be un-learned. Focusing on behaviour was thought to be more productive than analysing thought.

Skinner and Pavlov famously used animals to demonstrate that behaviours are physical responses to physical stimuli rather than being the result of conscious thought. Pavlov’s dog was taught to associate food with the sound of a bell and eventually to salivate just at the sound of the bell. Skinner proved that positive behaviour (including pressing a lever to obtain food) could be made to occur more frequently through the use of rewards. Negative behaviour could also be discouraged through the use of punishment.


How is Behavioural Therapy used?

Today, the ideas behind Behaviourism have been incorporated into several different forms of therapy including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Much more is known about the workings of the human mind and it is generally accepted that thoughts and actions work together rather than in isolation. Even so, it often still makes sense to focus on measurable behaviours more than subjective experiences.

Helping people to modify negative or unwanted behaviours can be achieved through the use of conditioning and positive or negative re-enforcement. Behavioural Therapy is often used quite effectively for treating conditions such as anxiety, phobias, OCD and addiction. Sometimes it is used on its own but generally therapists will incorporate Behavioural Therapy as part of a customised care plan for their client.


Who will benefit from Behavioural Therapy?

Behavioural Therapy can be divided into several categories or methods which influence behaviour in different ways. Therapists may use any combination of these depending on the situation.

  • Flooding – This approach forces those with phobias or other forms of anxiety to face their fear through prolonged exposure to it. For example; someone with a fear of heights may be asked to stand near an upper floor window inside a tall building. The longer they stay, the more likely they are to accept that they are in no danger.
  • Systematic desensitisation – This technique is used for those who may find flooding too confronting or those with multiple phobias. The idea is to start small and gradually increase exposure to the trigger/s while incorporating relaxation or other coping strategies. Someone with a fear of spiders asked to think about a spider, then be shown a picture of one, then see one in a jar until eventually they may even handle one.
  • Aversion therapy – Pairing something unpleasant with a negative behaviour may help a person learn to avoid it. This works well for addictions and could include adding a bitter flavour to comfort foods or alcohol.
  • Positive reinforcement – Parents and teachers often reward children for good behaviour using tokens or privileges; making them more likely to want to repeat the desired behaviour. This technique works equally well for adults.
  • Contingency management – Some people have real trouble understanding what is expected of them (including those with some forms of personality disorders). A written contract between the therapist and client that clearly states agreed goals, penalties and rewards gives both parties something concrete to work with.
  • Modelling – Finding a positive role model for the client to observe and copy helps give perspective to their own behaviour. Seeing how that role model’s behaviour has a positive flow-on effect is also beneficial. The model could be the counsellor or anyone else that the client looks up to.
  • Extinction – Negative behaviour can sometimes be curbed by removing reinforcement of any kind. Disruptive children may be sent to their room and adults may simply be ignored until their behaviour improves.


Why seek professional help?

Mental illness can be frightening and isolating, especially if you are in a depressed or suicidal state. Talking to friends and family may help but having the support and guidance of a professional counsellor is usually more beneficial. Therapy sessions are confidential and non-judgemental. Seeking help early gives you a greater chance of overcoming your condition and getting your life back to normal.


What qualifications or experience should a counsellor have?

There are no official requirements for a counsellor to have a particular qualification or level of training, however using a therapist that does have recognised qualifications and proven experience in Behavioural Therapy Counselling will help give you confidence and trust in them.

It is also useful to see if they are a member of a related professional association as this will show they have completed specialist training in their field.


Where to find help

Our True Counsellor Directory lists hundreds of psychotherapists and counsellors from Australia.

Some psychotherapists and counsellors listed in our directory offer counselling over the phone and online in addition to one-on-one consultations. Many also offer workshops and seminars.


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