People seeking psychological help for anxiety, depression, phobias, or undesired habits have many courses of treatment from which to choose. While some may be interested in intense discussion sessions that attempt to dig out the root of their issue, others want assistance coming up with a practical plan to deal with their issues day by day. For this second group of people, behavioral therapy may be key to obtaining their goals.
Behavioral therapy is based on the idea that most behavior is learned by repeated responses to a stimulus. If a person has developed a destructive response pattern to certain situations, this pattern must be broken down and replaced with a positive response in order to overcome the problem. For instance, if Joe's response to stress at work is to drink heavily afterward, he has developed a destructive behavioral pattern. If Joe can work to replace his drinking with another stress-combating activity, such as exercising or meditating, he will be replacing a negative pattern with a positive one that achieves the same results.
Behavioral therapy is one tool a therapist can use to help a patient like Joe replace destructive patterns with positive ones. The theory behind this type of therapy is based, in part, on the famous experiments in conditioning conducted by Ivan Pavlov during the early 20th century. Conditioning theories suggest that by rewarding and affirming a desired behavior or response, people can change detrimental patterns of behavior and action to positive patterns.
Modern day behavioral therapy is also distinctly influenced by the work of Joseph Wolpe and B.F. Skinner in the 1950s. Expanding on Pavlov's experiments, these doctors worked to find additional areas where behavioral psychology could be applied. Wolpe used the principles of the therapy to treat cases of anxiety caused by specific fears; by giving the patient increasing doses of exposure to the object that caused their anxiety, he attempted to overcome their fear response through desensitization. Skinner focused on behavior modification through reward and punishment, often called “operant conditioning.”
For a time in the latter half of the 20th century, behavioral therapy fell out of fashion. Seen as heartless and an often over-simplified approach to dealing with deep emotional problems, behavioral modification lost favor as cognitive therapy rose in popularity. Cognitive therapy, developed in the 1960s, attempted to change destructive behaviors by getting patients to recognize their detrimental thoughts and behaviors and rationally fight them off with positive concepts.
Today, this therapy is applied to a wide variety of psychological conditions, from smoking or food addiction to intimacy issues between couples. The battle between cognitive and behavioral therapies is largely settled, as many therapists now use a blended form of the once-rival theories. Modern psychology is largely personalized, with therapist and patients working together to find the course of treatment that is most effective for their particular psychological issues.