Techniques in behavioural therapies apply the learning principles to change maladaptive behaviours (Weiten, 2007). The techniques do not focus on clients achieving insights into their behaviour; rather the focus is just on changing the behaviour.

For example, if a behavioural therapist is working with a client that has an alcohol problem, the behavioural therapist will design a program to eliminate the behaviour of drinking – but there would be no focus on the issues or pathological symptoms causing the alcohol problem.

There are a number of techniques used in behaviour therapy that have been scientifically validated as being successful approaches to treating symptoms:

Systematic Desensitisation – Systematic desensitisation was developed by Joseph Wolfe and was designed for clients with phobias. This treatment follows a process of “counterconditioning” meaning the association between the stimulus and the anxiety is weakened through the use of relaxation techniques, anxiety hierarchies and desensitisation (Weiten, 2007).

The process of systematic desensitisation is applied to an example of a client with a fear of spiders as per below:

Step 1: Build a hierarchy of the anxiety-arousing stimuli including the degree of fear experienced from 5 to 100.

The client lists all anxiety arousing stimuli, such as: (1) Looking at the spider; (2)Holding a spider in their hands.

Step 2: Train the client in deep muscle relaxation.

Relaxation techniques thought to the client.

Step 3: Client works through hierarchy while using relaxation techniques.

Talks about anxiety of spiders and practices relaxation techniques.

Step 4: (used in some cases) Client confronts real fear.

Client is presented with a real spider and holds it in his/her hands.

Exposure Therapies – Exposure therapies are designed to expose the client to feared situations similar to that of systematic desensitisation (Corey, 2005). The therapies included are in vivo desensitisation and flooding. In vivo desensitisation involves the client being exposed to real life anxiety provoking situations.

The exposure is brief to begin with and eventually the client is exposed for longer periods of time to the fearful situation. As with systematic desensitisation, the client is taught relaxation techniques to cope with the anxiety produced by the situation. The example of the client with a fear of spiders will be used to demonstrate in vivo desensitisation.

To begin with the client would be shown a spider in a container on the other side of the room for one minute. This would gradually increase in time as well as the client getting closer to the spider until eventually the client is able to be sitting near the spider for a prolonged period.

Flooding – Flooding involves the client being exposed to the actual or imagined fearful situation for a prolonged period of time. The example of the client with the spider fear would be that the client would be exposed to the spider or the thought of a spider for a prolonged period of time and uses relaxation techniques to cope.

There may be ethical issues in using these techniques with certain fears or traumatic events and the client should be provided with information on the techniques before utilising them so he or she understands the process.

Aversion Therapy – The most controversial of the behavioural treatments, aversion therapy is used by therapists as a last resort to an aversive behaviour (Weiten, 2007). This treatment involves pairing the aversive behaviour (such as drinking alcohol) with a stimulus with an undesirable response (such as a medication that induces vomiting when taken with alcohol).

This is designed to reduce the targeted behaviour (drinking alcohol) even when the stimulus with the undesirable response is not taken (medication).

Modelling – Modelling is used as a treatment that involves improving interpersonal skills such as communication and how to act in a social setting. Techniques involved in modelling are live modelling, symbolic modelling, role-playing, participant modelling and covert modelling.

Live modelling involves the client watching a “model” such as the counsellor perform a specific behaviour, the client then copies this behaviour. Symbolic modelling involves the client watching a behaviour indirectly such as a video. Role-playing is where the counsellor role-plays a behaviour with the client in order for the client to practice the behaviour.

Participant modelling involves the counsellor modelling the behaviour and then getting the client to practice the behaviour while the counsellor performs the behaviour. Covert modelling is where the client cannot watch someone perform the behaviour but instead the counsellor gets the client to imagine a model performing the behaviour (Sharf, 2000).


  1. Corey, C. (2005). Theory and practice of counseling & psychotherapy. (7th ed.).Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning.
  2. Sharf, R.S. (2000). Theories of psychotherapy and counselling: Concepts and cases. (3rd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Thomson Learning.
  3. Weiten, W. (2007). Psychology: Themes & Variations. (7th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Thomson Publishing Inc.