Behavioural Therapy

What is Behaviour Therapy?

Behavioural Therapy has its origins in behaviourism. This school of thought is empirically based and focuses on observable learned behaviours and rewards that condition or reinforce those behaviours. The behavioural approach to therapy assumes that behaviour that is associated with psychological problems develops through the same processes of learning that affects the development of other behaviours. Therefore, behaviourists see personality problems in the way that personality was developed. They do not look at behaviour disorders as something a person has but that it reflects how learning has influenced certain people to behave in a certain way in certain situations.

How does Behaviour Therapy work?

Behaviour Therapy is based on two key concepts of classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical condition occurs when a neutral stimulus is paired with an event, for example a heightened sense of arousal is associated with a particular event or circumstance. We ‘learn’ that this event ‘causes’ the response when in fact the relationship between the stimulus or trigger may be arbitrary or coincidental. If things can be learned they can be unlearned. So, the Behaviour Therapist tends to focus on the present maintain factors rather than on, for example early childhood.

Operant Conditioning is a process by which rewards, or reinforcement strengthen a particular behaviour. The Behaviour Therapist will identify what contingencies are in play in the reinforcement of a behaviour. Managing the environment, removing rewards for unhelpful behaviour and establishing a rewards schedule for desired behavioural change are central to this approach.

What is Behaviour Therapy used for?

There is an abundance of evidence to support the use of this approach in the treatment of phobias, panic and anxiety disorders. It is particularly useful in managing problematic behaviours in children such as tantrums or school refusal.

What can I expect from Behaviour Therapy?

You can expect the therapist to conduct an through assessment of your problem, identifying in detail what precedes and maintains existing problematic behaviours. Subsequent to this the therapist will plan an alternative reinforcement regime that will extinguish current problem behaviours (by removing rewards) and establishes desired behaviours (by adding new rewards).

What mental health issues is Behaviour Therapy most helpful in treating?

There is an abundance of evidence to support the use of this approach in the treatment of phobias, panic and anxiety disorders. It is particularly useful in managing problematic behaviours in children such as tantrums or school refusal.

When doesn’t Behaviour Therapy work?

Consistency is key to success in this approach. It the case of children, parents have to be motivated and committed to consistently implementing a behavioural programme defined by the therapist. Deviation from the behavioural programme will limit the success, and in some cases, extenuate the duration and course of the problem behaviour. For adults, adherence or commitment to the programme and managing their environment is important for success.

Things to consider before choosing Behaviour Therapy

These include being realistic about your motivation to achieve change, the extent to which you can control contingencies and work outside sessions.

This content has been researched, prepared and written by Counselling in Melbourne psychologist Dr Malcolm Winstanley-Cross.

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