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Summary: Behavior Therapies

Behavior therapies aim to help people by changing behaviors directly, not trying to locate hidden problems. One of the most successful early behavior therapies was Wolpe's desensitization.

Desensitization is aimed at eliminating unwanted anxiety. Originally, relaxation was used to counter the effects of anxiety. In the classic version of desensitization, a client imagined gradually more fearsome scenes, while fully relaxed, until able to tolerate the most fearsome images.

Researchers explored many variations of desensitization. Flooding is direct exposure to a feared stimulus at a high intensity. In vivo desensitization uses a real life situation rather than imagined scenes. The two techniques were combined into exposure therapy, one of the most commonly used behavior therapies in the 21st Century.

Almost all talking therapies can be construed as exposure therapies, in a sense. In almost every psychotherapy, a client is invited to discuss traumatic memories or painful hurts, conflicts, and difficult issues.

This results in continuous exposure to material that might normally cause anxiety and avoidance. Extinction can occur under those circumstances. If so, painful thoughts lose their sting. Perhaps this is why all talking therapies have about the same rate of success: two-thirds of clients improve.

Sensitization is the opposite of extinction or desensitization. Whereas desensiti­zation decreases response to a stimulus, sensitization increases it. An example is Mowrer's anti-bed­wetting apparatus, which used a urine-sensitive pad to sound an alarm, sensitizing a child to the feelings of a full bladder.

Sensitization is also used to encourage enjoyment of romance, in marriage therapies. Couples perform activities such as massage, aimed at focusing on sensitive interactions, and they set up stimulus conditions such as romantic dinner dates that function as cues predicting positive romantic encounters.

Modeling, behavior rehearsal, and behavior contracting are three direct approaches to modifying behavior highlighted by the social learning approach of Albert Bandura. Behavior rehearsal was illustrated by a case history from Wolpe and Lazarus (1966) in which a man was taught how to present himself in an interview.

Beck's therapy for depression resembles the rational-emotive behavior therapy of Albert Ellis, but was aimed specifically at automatic negative thinking that fostered states of depression. Like Ellis, Beck challenged unrealistic self-talk and encouraged positive alternatives.

Martin E.P. Seligman formulated a theory of learned optimism. Borrowing from Beck, Seligman identified three aspects of self-talk that could cause a downward spiral of depressive thinking. He encour­aged people to cultivate the opposite sorts of thought patterns, resulting in learned optimism instead of learned helplessness.


Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.


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