Behavioral therapies encompass a number of treatments that focus on helping your body and brain build new connections through healthier behaviors. These connections are both psychological (developing healthier cognitive and emotional habits) and neurobiological (improved connectivity between brain regions involved in strong emotional responses).
For example, one form of treatment called behavioral activation seeks to lift mood by slowly increasing and reintegrating activities that are fun, physical, social or give a sense of achievement back into your daily life. It is often used as a component of CBT.
Physically, anything from taking a walk to incorporating the stairs in your daily routine is a great way to get your body and mind moving again. Socially, calling or texting an old friend may also help you gradually feel more connected and engaged with others. Simultaneously addressing both the psychological and behavioral sides of mental health can often synergistically kick-start progress toward feeling better overall.
If you have a particular phobia, a therapist might use graduated exposure to help you relearn how to tolerate the normal distress that can accompany uncomfortable experiences. The goal is not to eliminate all feelings of distress, but rather to relearn that your body and brain can withstand normal distress without shutting down. Eventually, you may be able to participate in an activity you’ve been avoiding, or directly engage with what you fear.
For example, if I’m struggling with a fear of needles, I would spend some time understanding the full range of the fearful responses I have to them. Thinking about needles makes me feel uncomfortable, seeing needles makes my heart race, and preparing to have my blood drawn makes me sweat and intensely want to avoid my appointment. Graduated exposure therapy would slowly but steadily introduce minimally distressing experiences (looking at pictures of needles) until my body and brain become accustomed to the fear response and return increasingly quickly to a normal state. This process, called habituation, can be practiced with increasingly distressing versions of your fear until you’re ready to tackle the full experience (getting blood drawn).
For children and families, behavioral modification is a generally brief (four to eight sessions) and problem-focused way to introduce more structure to parent-child interactions. This might involve creating a plan that establishes rewards to encourage positive behaviors, and consequences to discourage challenging behaviors.
If a family is working on improving respectful language in the home, for example, a parent might offer specific praise each time a child uses respectful language, strategically ignore minor disrespectful language, and establish predictable and consistent consequences for major disrespectful language.
Behavioral modification can also be useful for adults working to change specific challenging behaviors of their own. A typical example may be getting to watch an episode of a favorite TV show only if you’ve exercised that day.