Behavioral therapies use learning principles (examples given below) to eliminate or reduce unwanted reactions to external situations, one’s one thoughts and feelings, and bodily sensations or functions. Rather than dealing with unconscious conflicts, this therapeutic approach deals with events of which people are aware or can readily become aware. The therapist teaches the client to replace undesirable responses (groundless fears, for example) in their day-to-day living. Learning-based techniques include the following:
Instead of trying to avoid or escape upsetting experiences — which can bring short-term relief, but in the longer run usually prolong or worsen one’s vulnerability — clients voluntarily expose themselves to the experiences while in a relaxed state. Exposures may be to the actual situation (in vivo exposure) or to an imagined version of it (in vitro exposure). As a result they form associations between the formerly upsetting experiences and feeling relatively untroubled, which leads to clearer thinking and better decisions. With practice, the new associations progressively take over from the old ones that were causing difficulty.
Here, desirable actions are selectively reinforced (rewarded), and undesirable actions are ignored whenever possible. (At times, undesirable actions may be penalized instead of ignored, but this tactic is regarded as a last resort, since it produces distress and tends to yield unpredictable results.)
This is a method commonly used in treating depression. It involves developing a list of activities the client is likely to enjoy, or needs to engage in as part of a normal and satisfying life. Then, beginning with the easiest (or sometimes, the most indispensable) activities on the list, the client agrees to carry them out in an organized manner. This reinstates contact with the naturally-occurring rewards of the chosen activities, which in turn helps overcome the depressed mood.
The client observes another person perform a desired behavior (for instance, doing something he has been afraid to do). Then, having seen how someone else’s performance did not meet with negative repercussions, with the therapist’s encouragement and guidance the client learns to successfully copy the performance.
A bodily function (such as heart rate or muscle tension) is monitored and the amplified information is fed back to the client. Through this process the client becomes better able to control the function. For example, they learn to relax to slow their heart rate or decrease muscle tension more effectively than they could relying on normal, un-amplified feedback about these functions.