What Does a Behavioral Therapist Do?

Medically reviewed by: Wendy Rasmussen, PhD
Monday, July 24 2023

Behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that was developed by famed American psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1960s. Since then, mental health professionals have used behavioral therapy to treat various conditions and disorders, such as: substance abuse and addiction, depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many more.

In fact, behavioral therapy has become such a common treatment for mental health disorders that many therapists today focus their entire practice around behavioral therapy methods. To help you decide if working with these health care professionals is the right choice for you, let's explore what behavioral therapists do and how behavioral therapy works to treat various mental health conditions.

What is behavioral therapy?

Behavioral therapy is an umbrella term that includes numerous types of therapy that are used to treat various behavioral issues and mental health conditions. The goal of behavioral therapy is ultimately behavior change, with behavioral therapists seeking to reframe how a person reacts to certain stimuli.

Behavioral health is the primary focus of behavioral therapy, and therapists will work to analyze how a person's behaviors impact their mental health and quality of life. 

Who is behavioral therapy for?

When conducted by a professional in a clinical setting, behavioral therapy can be used to treat a range of mental health issues. This includes, but isn’t limited to:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders

Types of behavioral therapy

Behavioral psychology is a field that has given birth to numerous therapy methods. The exact type of therapy that you will receive from your therapist will depend on your mental health goals and what you and your therapist decide is the best approach to reaching them. However, here are a few of the most common types of therapy that a behavioral therapist will offer:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT is the most commonly employed type of behavioral therapy and is a therapy method that focuses on the connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. CBT aims to identify unwanted behaviors and negative thought patterns and reframe them into more positive behaviors and thoughts. Studies have found that this method of therapy may be highly effective at treating anxiety disorders, somatoform disorders, eating disorders, anger problems, and general stress.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

ACT focuses on helping people learn to confront and accept difficult or uncomfortable emotions that may be holding them back, rather than avoiding those feelings. 

This form of therapy helps people accept the challenges they’re experiencing and commit to making the behavioral changes needed to move forward in their lives. It’s commonly used to treat anxiety, depression, substance abuse, chronic pain, and eating disorders.

Applied behavioral analysis (ABA)

ABA focuses on the relationship between behavior and its social consequences and is commonly used with children and individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

ABA involves breaking complex behaviors into smaller milestones, then using positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors while reducing problematic behaviors. This type of therapy is highly individualized and may be used to address a range of skills, including communication, daily living skills, social interactions, and academics.   

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)

DBT was first developed as a treatment for borderline personality disorder but has since been used to treat a broader range of conditions. 

DBT shares a lot in common with CBT, with both types of therapy focusing on how a person's thoughts and behaviors impact their mental health. However, DBT also borrows concepts from mindfulness and acceptance-based approaches.

One of the key goals of DBT is to teach individual skills and interpersonal skills that can be used to manage overwhelming emotions. Another important distinction is that DBT tends to involve group therapy in addition to individual therapy. This allows clients to practice the interpersonal and communication skills they need in a comfortable, judgment-free environment.

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is most commonly used to treat specific phobias and involves incrementally exposing a person to the source of their fears in a safe, controlled setting. Exposure therapy aims to reduce the intense negative response that a client feels when exposed to their phobias.

While treating specific phobias is the most common application of exposure therapy (for instance, showing pictures of snakes to someone with ophidiophobia), exposure therapy can also treat other mental health concerns. For example, exposure therapy is sometimes used to treat social anxiety by slowly exposing the client to social situations and helping them work through the social anxiety they experience.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)

MBCT combines elements of cognitive therapy with mindfulness exercises, like deep breathing, stretching, and meditation. Commonly used to treat those with recurring episodes of depression, MBCT is rooted in the idea that people can recognize and change negative thought patterns by becoming more aware of their thoughts and feelings.

How behavioral therapists help their clients

Behavioral therapists use numerous treatment methods and strategies to help clients improve their mental well-being and quality of life, including:

Using evidence-based practices

All the types of behavioral therapy that we've covered so far are based on decades of results and research. These methods have been proven effective and optimized over the years for the best possible outcomes.

Using these evidence-based practices, behavioral therapists can create comprehensive treatment plans for clients. While every treatment plan should be personalized to the individual client and their needs, it will ultimately be based on practices and methods that have been proven effective countless times before.

Assessing behaviors and addressing root causes

Talk therapy is one method that behavioral therapists use to identify and work through the root cause of behavioral issues. By guiding open, honest conversations with clients, therapists can learn more about the root causes of a client's issues while helping the client learn more about themselves.

Once the underlying cause of a client's maladaptive behaviors has been identified, a behavioral therapist will work to help the client overcome it and replace it with more helpful behaviors. A CBT therapist will also work to provide their client with coping skills and mechanisms that they can use to reinforce these thoughts and beliefs and prevent negative thought patterns from resurfacing.

Developing strategies and providing support

A significant part of a person's journey toward better mental health will occur outside therapy sessions. What you do and how you think when you’re away from your therapist will ultimately have a bigger impact than how you feel during therapy sessions.

However, your therapist will still play a big role in this vital part of your mental health journey. A behavioral therapist will help you develop strategies and skills that you can apply throughout your day-to-day life. They will also be there to provide ongoing support when questions or issues arise.

Building and maintaining positive relationships

Human beings are social creatures, and few things impact our mental health more than our relationships with others. It’s important to note that behavioral therapists are not the same as family and marriage counselors and they don't typically provide relationship counseling services. However, because behavioral therapists help address maladaptive behaviors and replace them with more helpful patterns, they can be excellent supportive resources if those behaviors have impacted your relationships.

Education and training requirements for behavioral therapists

Are you interested in becoming a behavioral therapist? Or perhaps you just want to learn more about the education and training that behavioral therapists undergo before you decide to schedule an appointment with one.

In either case, below is the career path that most behavioral therapists will typically follow.

1. Bachelor's degree

Starting a career as a behavioral therapist begins with earning a bachelor's degree in a field such as counseling or psychology. From there, an advanced degree is required to work as a licensed therapist.

2. Advanced degree

After earning a bachelor's degree, most people pursuing careers in behavioral therapy will go on to earn their master's degree in social work, psychology, counseling, or a related field. 

Some behavioral therapists choose to earn their doctoral degree as well, though it is more common for individuals holding a doctoral degree to work as psychiatrists or clinical psychologists, who will work in research in addition to practicing therapy.

3. Work experience and certification

The exact work experience and certifications that a behavioral therapist needs will vary somewhat depending on the scope of their exact position and place of employment.  

If a behavioral therapist wishes to open their own private practice, they will also need to hold licensure as a clinical social worker or another clinical license such as a professional counselor or psychology license. 

Requirements for earning clinical licensure depend on the license type and the state where it is issued. Generally speaking, a behavioral therapist will need to:

  • Have at least a master's degree, plus one year of post-graduate supervised clinical experience
  • Complete a certain number of hours working under the supervision of a licensed therapist

Match with a behavioral therapist today with SonderMind

Behavioral therapy can effectively treat various behavioral issues and mental health conditions. However, choosing the right therapist is one of the biggest keys to ensuring that behavioral therapy is effective.

At SonderMind, we help match clients with online and in-person therapists who are ideally suited to their preferences and mental health needs. Based on your responses to a brief questionnaire, SonderMind matches you with your ideal therapist in as little as 24-48 hours.

Get matched with a SonderMind provider today.

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