What is behavioral therapy?
Behavioral therapy is an umbrella term for types of therapy that treat mental health disorders.
This form of therapy looks to identify and help change potentially self-destructive or unhealthy behaviors. It’s based on the idea that all behaviors are learned and that behaviors can be changed. The focus of treatment is often on current problems and how to change them.
Types of behavioral therapy
There are a number of different types of behavioral therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy is extremely popular. It combines behavioral therapy, which focuses on patterns of action, with cognitive therapy, which focuses on patterns of thought.
Treatment is centered around how your thoughts and beliefs influence your actions and moods. It often focuses on your current problems and how to solve them. The long-term goal is to build thinking and behavioral patterns that help you achieve a better quality of life.
Cognitive behavioral play therapy
Cognitive behavioral play therapy is commonly used as a treatment for mental health conditions in children. By watching a child play, a therapist is able to gain insight into what a child is uncomfortable expressing or unable to express.
Children may be able to choose their own toys and play freely. They might be asked to draw a picture or use toys to create scenes in a sandbox. Therapists may teach parents how to use play to improve communication with their children.
In this form of play therapy, the therapist also takes a more direct approach by working with both the child and the caregivers to teach the child how to cope well and achieve their defined goals. The therapist is doing more than just watching the child play.
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
ACT is a type of psychotherapy that includes behavioral analysis performed by a mental health clinician. While sometimes compared with CBT, ACT has its own specific approach. ACT is based on relational frame theory, which focuses on mental processes and human language.
In ACT, people are taught mindfulness skills and acceptance strategies with the goal of increasing psychological flexibility. Additionally, commitment and behavior change methods are used.
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
DBT was created by Dr. Marsha Linehan to help treat the symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD), an emotional regulation disorder marked by suicidal behavior, depression, unstable personal relationships, and other symptoms.
DBT can also be helpful for conditions other than BPD.
DBT consists of four elements, known as modules:
- core mindfulness
- interpersonal effectiveness, which is used to improve 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.
Some techniques used in behavioral therapy
Systematic desensitization is a process that helps you to become less sensitive to certain triggers. It relies heavily on classical conditioning, a type of unconscious and automatic learning that creates behavior. It’s often used in the treatment of phobias.
During treatment, you’re taught to replace your fear responses with relaxation responses, which begins with learning relaxation and breathing techniques.
Once you’ve mastered these techniques, your therapist will have you face your fear or fears at slowly increasing levels while you use these techniques.
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 (something that triggers a response) that’s pleasant but unhealthy with an extremely unpleasant stimulus.
The unpleasant stimulus may be something that causes discomfort. For example, a therapist may teach you to associate alcohol with an unpleasant memory.
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.
A 2012 study found that cognitive behavioral therapy is most effective when treating:
- anxiety disorders
- general stress
- anger-related disorders
- somatoform disorders, like somatic symptom disorder, in which bodily symptoms without an underlying physical cause are experienced
- substance use disorders
Studies have shown that play therapy is very effective in children ages 3 to 12 years. But this therapy is increasingly being used in people of all ages.
Behavioral therapy for children
Applied behavioral therapy and play therapy are both used for children. Treatment involves teaching children different methods of responding to situations more positively.
A central part of this therapy is rewarding adaptive behaviors that benefit a child’s functioning and discourage maladaptive behaviors, or those that interfere with a child’s best possible functioning.
This therapy often requires multiple people in a child’s environment to be committed to the process, including parents, teachers, and other important figures.
It may take children some time to trust their counselor. This is to be expected.
With time, patience, and focus on building trust, a child may warm up to the point of being able to fully express themselves. This also is heavily dependent on the age of the child.
Autistic children with ADHD often benefit from behavioral therapy.
How to find a behavioral therapist
Finding a therapist can feel overwhelming, but there are many resources that can make it easier.
When finding a therapist or mental health professional, you can choose from:
- social workers
- faith-based counselors
- non-faith-based counselors
You should make sure that the therapist you choose has the necessary certifications and degrees. Some therapists will focus on treating certain conditions, like eating disorders or depression.
If you don’t know how to get started with finding a therapist, you can ask a general practitioner, a doctor who treats a broad range of conditions, for a recommendation. The general practitioner may recommend a psychiatrist if this is appropriate for you.
Psychiatrists are able to write prescriptions for medication if they think you might benefit from it. The Healthline FindCare tool can also provide options in your area if you need help finding a therapist.
Most insurance plans will cover therapy for mental health conditions. Some therapists offer grants or sliding-scale payment options for individuals from low-income households.
A therapist will ask you many detailed questions in order to accurately assess your concerns and formulate a specific treatment plan.
You’ll know you’ve found the right therapist when you feel comfortable talking with them and are experiencing the gains or improvements you’ve been looking for. You may have to meet with several therapists before you find the right one.
What is rational emotive therapy?
Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is a type of therapy introduced by Albert Ellis in the 1950s. It’s an approach that helps you identify irrational beliefs and negative thought patterns that may lead to emotional or behavioral issues.
Once you’ve identified these patterns, a therapist will help you develop strategies to replace them with more rational thought patterns.
REBT can be particularly helpful for people living with a variety of issues, including:
- addictive behaviors
- overwhelming feelings of anger, guilt, or rage
- disordered eating habits
- sleep problems
Read on to learn more about REBT, including its core principles and effectiveness.
What are the principles of REBT?
REBT is grounded in the idea that people generally want to do well in life. For example, you probably want to achieve your goals and find happiness. But sometimes, irrational thoughts and feelings get in the way. These beliefs can influence how you perceive circumstances and events — usually not for the better.
Imagine you’ve texted someone you’ve been dating for a month. You see they’ve read the message, but several hours pass with no reply. By the next day, they still haven’t replied.
You might then:
- start to think they’re ignoring you because they don’t want to see you
- worry you did something wrong when you last saw them
- tell yourself relationships never work out and that you’ll be alone for the rest of your life
Here’s how this example illustrates the core principles — called the ABCs — of REBT:
- A refers to the (a)ctivating event or situation that triggers a negative reaction or response. In this example, the A is the lack of reply.
- B refers to the (b)eliefs or irrational thoughts you might have about an event or situation. The B in the example is the belief that they don’t want to see you anymore or that you’ve done something wrong and that you will be alone for the rest of your life.
- C refers to the (c)onsequences, often the distressing emotions, that result from the irrational thoughts or beliefs. In this example, that might include feelings of worthlessness or not being good enough.
In this scenario, REBT would focus on helping you to reframe how you think about why the person didn’t respond. Maybe they were busy or simply forgot to respond. Or maybe they aren’t interested in meeting you again; if so, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you or that you will spend the rest of your life alone.
What techniques are used in REBT?
REBT uses three main types of techniques, which correspond with the ABCs. Each therapist might use a slightly different combination of techniques depending on both their past clinical experiences and your symptoms.
These strategies can help address the activating event (A).
They often include working to develop:
- problem-solving skills
- social skills
- decision-making skills
- conflict resolution skills
Cognitive restructuring techniques
These strategies help you to change irrational beliefs (B).
They might include:
- logical or rationalizing techniques
- guided imagery and visualization
- reframing, or looking at events in a different way
- humor and irony
- exposure to a feared situation
- disputing irrational thoughts
Coping techniques can help you better manage the emotional consequences (C) of irrational thoughts.
These coping techniques may include:
Regardless of the techniques they use, your therapist will also likely give you some work to do on your own between sessions. This gives you a chance to apply the skills you learn in a session to your daily lie. For example, they might have you write down how you feel after experiencing something that usually makes you feel anxious and think about how your response made you feel.
How does REBT compare to CBT?
There’s some debate among experts about the relationship between REBT and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Some see REBT as a type of CBT, while others argue that they’re two very distinct approaches.
While CBT and REBT are based on similar principles, they have several key differences. Both approaches work to help you accept and change irrational thoughts that cause distress. But REBT places a little more emphasis on the acceptance part.
The creator of REBT refers to this element of treatment as unconditional self-acceptance. This involves trying to avoid self-judgement and recognizing that humans, including you, can and will make mistakes.
REBT is also unique because it sometimes uses humor as a therapeutic tool to help you take things less seriously or look at things differently. This might involve cartoons, humorous songs, or irony.
REBT also makes a point of addressing secondary symptoms, such as becoming anxious about experiencing anxiety or feeling depressed about having depression.
How effective is REBT?
REBT is generally accepted as an effective type of therapy. A 2017 review of 84 published articles on REBT concluded it’s a valid treatment that can help with obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, depression, and disruptive behavior. But the review points out the need for more randomized trials to understand how REBT can help to treat a wider variety of conditions.
A small 2016 study looked at the benefits of regular REBT sessions with a social worker for long-term depression. After a year, the participants made fewer trips to their primary care doctor. The use of prescription medications also decreased. A 2014 study similarly found that REBT may be an effective treatment for depression in young girls.
Keep in mind that people respond differently to all types of therapy. What works for one person may not work for you.
How do I find a therapist who does REBT?
Finding a therapist can be a daunting task. To help streamline the process, start by taking note of specific things you’d like to address in therapy. Are there any specific traits you want your therapist to have? Do you prefer a person of a certain gender?
It might also help to determine how much you can realistically spend per session. Some therapists might not take insurance, but many offer sliding-scale fees or low-cost options. This is a common conversation for a therapist to have with a potential client, so don’t feel uncomfortable asking about cost. Learn more about finding affordable therapy.
If you live in the United States, you can find psychologists in your area here. When calling potential therapists, give them a brief idea of what you’re looking to get out of therapy and ask if they have any experience with REBT. If they sound promising, make an appointment.
Don’t be discouraged if you find that they aren’t a good fit during your first session. Some people need to see a few therapists before they find the right one.
Here are six other questions to ask yourself after that first appointment.
The bottom line
REBT is a type of therapy that can help with a range of mental health conditions. It’s similar to CBT, but there are some key differences between the two. If you’re looking to reframe some of your thought patterns, REBT may be a good approach to try.