Behavioral Therapy

Written by Kristeen Cherney
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on June 4, 2013

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy is a treatment that helps change potentially self-destructing behaviors. It is also called behavioral modification or cognitive behavioral therapy. Medical professionals use this type of therapy to replace bad habits with good ones. The therapy also helps you cope with difficult situations. It is most often used to treat anxiety disorders. However, you don’t have to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder to benefit.

What Is Behavioral Therapy Used For?

Behavioral therapy is used by psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and other qualified medical professionals. It is usually used to help treat anxiety and mood disorders. These include:

  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • depression
  • social phobia
  • bipolar disorder
  • schizophrenia

This treatment can help patients cope with certain mental disorders. It can also be used to treat:

  • autism
  • personality disorders
  • substance abuse
  • eating disorders

This therapy is also used on patients with chronic diseases to help manage pain. For example, cancer patients use learned techniques to better cope with radiation therapy. Doctors often recommend behavioral modification to pregnant women who can’t safely take medications. This form of treatment can also help with emotional grief.

Techniques Used

Therapists create treatment plans specifically tailored to individual conditions. Some exercises may include:

  • discussions about coping mechanisms
  • role playing
  • breathing and relaxation methods
  • positive reinforcement
  • activities to promote focus
  • journal writing
  • social skills training
  • modifications in responses to anger, fear, and pain

Therapists sometimes ask patients to think about situations that scare them. The goal is not to frighten them but to help them develop different coping skills.


The general benefit is increased quality of life. Specific benefits vary depending on what condition is being treated. These can include:

  • reduced incidents of self-harm
  • improved social skills
  • better functioning in unfamiliar situations
  • improved emotional expressions
  • less outbursts
  • better pain management
  • ability to recognize the need for medical help

Risks of Behavioral Therapy

The goal of behavioral therapy is to limit self-harm. The risks for this treatment are minimal. Some patients consider the emotional aspects of the sessions risky. Exploring feelings and anxieties can cause bursts of crying and anger. The emotional aftermath of therapy can be physically exhausting and painful. A therapist will help to improve coping mechanisms and to minimize any side effects from therapy.

Preparing for Behavioral Therapy

Generally, a primary physician or neurologist will refer patients to another doctor who specializes in behavioral therapy. Some psychotherapists also perform these treatments. Always check the credentials of your therapist. A credible behavioral therapist should have a degree as well as a license or certification.

Because therapy sessions are frequent, it is important that the patient and doctor get on well. Patients can request a consultation before beginning treatment.

Therapy sessions can become a financial burden. Some insurance providers do cover behavioral therapy. Others may only grant a portion of the costs or allot a certain number of sessions per year. Before beginning therapy, patients should discuss the coverage with your health insurance company and create a payment plan.


Behavioral therapy is not a cure for any condition. It is a teaching method to help cope with everyday life.  Depending on individual needs, a person may only need it on a short-term basis. The exact length of a treatment plan depends on individual goals and progress made.

During treatment it is important to continue taking any medications as prescribed by a doctor. Some research shows that learned techniques in therapy may gradually reduce the need for medicine. However, each case is different. Speak with a doctor if treatment doesn’t seem to be working.

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