Behavior Therapy

What is behavior therapy?

Behavior therapy teaches you new and different ways to respond to things that cause problems or that upset you.

When is it used?

Behavior therapy can help with:

  • Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Eating disorders
  • Habits such as smoking, thumb-sucking, bedwetting, and nail biting
  • Depression
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Sleep disorders

How does it work?

You and your therapist will work together to discover what causes your behavior and how that behavior affects your life. The therapist will ask questions and observe your responses. For example, if you once had a panic attack on a bus, you might learn to fear riding a bus. You might also have panic attacks in the future if you ride a bus.

Once the therapist understands your behavior patterns, he or she can help you find activities and exercises that help you. Examples of different kinds of activities include:

  • Relaxation response

    One goal of behavior therapy may be to replace fear of events, things, or places with a response that relaxes you. For example, if you are afraid of dogs you might be asked to think about holding a dog, look at a picture of a dog, or spend time with a dog. Next, you rank these things from least stressful to most stressful. If the picture is the least stressful, the first thing you will do is practice relaxation methods while you look at a picture of a dog. As you learn to relax, the link between dogs and fear may weaken. Once you are comfortable with the first step, you can move up your list until you are no longer afraid of dogs.

  • Reward or punishment

    Learning is often linked to rewards and punishments. If the result of your behavior is a reward, you are likely to repeat the behavior. For example, you can reward yourself for exercising regularly by getting a massage or buying new clothes.

    If the result of your behavior is punishment, you are less likely to repeat the behavior. You can change behavior that you do not want by making it unpleasant. For example, some medicines used to treat alcoholism make you feel sick if you drink alcohol while taking them.

  • Social learning

    Social learning means that you may change your behavior based on how other people in your life behave. You may also learn behavior by watching and imitating others. It may help to find a role model for the behavior you want to learn. Group therapy can help you know you are not alone. Talking and interacting with other group members may help you to understand and change your own behavior.

How do I find a therapist?

Ask questions and get referrals from people you know and trust. You could check with:

  • Your healthcare provider
  • Your clergyman, school teachers, or school counselors
  • Friends or family members who have been in therapy
  • Your health insurance company
  • Your employee assistance program (EAP) at work
  • Local mental health or human service agencies
  • Professional associations of psychologists, psychiatrists, or counselors
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-04-03
Last reviewed: 2014-04-03
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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