Behavioural approaches to treatment recognise that in various ways people’s behaviour is learnt. Behaviour that is followed by pleasant experiences will occur more frequently (positive reinforcement) as will behaviour that is followed by the avoidance of something unpleasant (negative reinforcement). If aversive experiences follow our actions we are less likely to behave in that way again (punishment). These ways of understanding learning and behaviour are referred to as operant conditioning.
Sometimes an otherwise non-threatening experience or situation becomes associated with the experience of threat. The process by which this occurs is known as classical conditioning. If a frightening experience takes place in a neutral situation, that situation on its own may cause anxiety in the future, although the actual threat is absent. Any type of experience can become associated with another in this way, both positive and negative.
A further important way of understanding behaviour is that it can be learnt by social experience (social learning theory). If we see another person handling a difficult situation effectively and calmly we are likely to feel confident about handling it ourselves, and to have picked up some ideas about how to do it. We refer to this as modelling. Conversely we can learn to feel anxious about situations if we see others struggling with them.
Behavioural approaches also think of our social behaviours in terms of skills which can be learnt and improved on just as can practical skills (social skills).
Behavioural therapy handout
Link to blog posts featuring psychotherapy
— Leaflet from the Royal College of Psychiatrists discussing cognitive behavioural therapy