Human beings are still animals. While we have high level cognitive functioning, we also share many behavioral traits with other animals. We can be trained to do things via behavioral principles, and we respond to things like conditioning and reinforcement.
That's why cognitive behavioral therapists use behavior therapy in addition to cognitive therapy to help train people out of their anxiety disorders. What are these techniques, do they work, and can you do behavioral therapy yourself at home?
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Introduction to Behavioral Psychology
Behavioral psychology is one of the earliest fields of psychology, and yet its principles still hold true today. It has been integrated with cognitive psychotherapy, and together they are considered the most effective way to deal with anxiety and other mental health issues. Many of the techniques can actually be completed at home. Find out more about how to reduce anxiety at home with my free anxiety test.
Behavioral psychology is a very large field. While there are several components, the most well known are classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Human beings, like animals, are extremely prone to these effects in their life.
- Classical Conditioning This is when you associate an event to an unrelated object or event, known as a stimulus. For example, when you hear a song playing from a truck driving by outside as a kid, you immediately get excited and know that's the ice cream truck. That's a form of classical conditioning. Another is when your parents ring a bell to tell you dinner is ready and you respond by getting hungry or salivating.
- Operant Conditioning Operant conditioning is behavior modification through rewards and/or punishments. There are actually four types. In this case, "positive" means to give, "negative" means to take away, "reinforcement" means you want them to do a behavior more, and "punishment" less:
o Positive Reinforcement Giving your child a hug when they start walking for the first time.
o Negative Reinforcement Turning off a loud noise when your baby starts crying.
o Positive Punishment Hitting someone to get them to stop doing something.
o Negative Punishment Taking away a child's favorite toy when they're bad.
Not all reinforcement is good. For example, if you buy your child a toy to get them to stop whining, you've reinforced the idea that whining is good if they want a toy, and they'll be more likely to do it in the future.
While most of the above examples were with children, adults have it too. For example, if you have a bad experience on a plane, you may start to associate planes with fear. If you were in a war and heard loud noises, you may be on edge and jump at a loud noise. If you work in an office and your boss gives you a compliment for your hard work, you're more likely to work hard in the future.
Within conditioning there are other issues as well. For example:
- Extinction This is when you slowly do a behavior less and less because you're no longer rewarded. For example, if you cleaned the dishes because your spouse complimented you, and your spouse stops complimenting you, you might stop cleaning the dishes.
- Habituation Similar to extinction, habituation is when something that specifically caused a fear or excited response stops causing that response because you're faced with it too often. For example, watching your favorite movie may get you excited, but if you watch it every hour of every day you probably stop caring.
There are countless examples of behavioral principles that have been shown time and time again to play a role in modern day life. Even though humans are cognitive creatures - and certainly, human beings can overcome some of their reinforced and punished behaviors with their mind, such as standing up to a bully or working hard despite unfair punishments - behavioral psychology still plays a significant role in modern life.
It's also a very big part of living with anxiety, which is why anxiety disorders tend to respond particularly well to behavioral treatments.
How Behavioral Therapy Affects Anxiety
Now, the origins of anxiety are extremely complex. Some of them are chemical and genetic. Some of them are cognitive. And of course, some of them are behavioral. Often there is a combination of all of them involved. Anxiety can be the result of conditioning, but it is often much more complex than that.
But despite its origins, anxiety responds very well to several types of behavioral training.
An Example With Phobias
Let's use phobias as an example. Phobias may be due to any number of factors. Fear of spiders may be due to watching your parents be afraid of spiders, having a bad experience with a spider, or simply finding spiders scary for an unknown reason.
But interestingly, they are extremely prone to behavioral psychology, especially negative reinforcement. Remember, reinforcement is experiencing a behavior or feeling more often because you took something away. In this case, you fear a spider so when you see a spider you actively run away from it. Thus by running away you actually mentally reinforced the idea that the spider is something to fear at a behavioral level - even without knowing it.
That's often why phobias become so severe - you're constantly reinforcing the fear on a behavioral level by running away or doing anything you can to get rid of the fear-causing stimulus (the spider).
What's interesting though is that you can also reduce that fear in the comfort of your own home through similar behavioral principles. The key is to not run away and "face the fear"
How to Face the Fear
Obviously this is easier said than done. With other anxiety disorders - like panic disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder - you can generally attack the fear directly. For example:
- Panic Disorder Anxiety is often triggered by physical sensations. Creating those sensations on purpose until they bore you reduces anxiety. For example, spinning around in a chair to simulate dizziness.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder OCD is characterized by thoughts. Normally a person does anything they can to push the thought away, and this reinforces the fear of the thought. Instead of pushing it away, find a comfortable place and start thinking about it on purpose until it no longer scares you.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder Thoughts tend to be more random and occur at different times, but the same principles apply. If you have a fear, face it, and you should habituate to the fear response.
But for other disorders, you can do the same techniques but in a more gradual approach:
- Phobias Start by thinking about the thing that causes you fear until you're bored with it. Then move on to photos. Then videos. Then finally being in the same room with it. Only move on to the next step when you can do those behaviors without fear.
- Social Phobia Technically a different disorder, you can tackle this in parts, by getting used to embarrassment, purposely subjecting yourself to uncomfortable social situations, and so on.
The key for all of these though is to make sure that you engage in them without stopping until you're bored of them. If it "gets to be too much" and you stop doing it, you may be unintentionally causing negative reinforcement.
Other Ways to Combat Anxiety
Behavioral therapy is a fairly broad field, and there are several tools that you can integrate into your life that can be useful for learning how to successfully cure yourself of your anxiety altogether.
If you're looking for a comprehensive at home option, make sure you also take my free 7 minute anxiety test now, where you'll find other effective ways to reduce your anxiety from the comfort of your own home.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.