Behavior therapies have been around for a long time in helping people address problems of depression and anxiety. Here is a short article about old ways of thinking about behaviorism and what newer “third wave” therapies have to offer.
Old behavior theories are often criticized for this idea that there is no “person” on the “inside”, rather everything was a matter of stimulus and response. For instance, the presence of a stop sign (stimulus) would prompt the behavior or stopping (response), and behavior could be controlled by stimulus in the environment. Criticisms of this way of thinking included the lack of free will or choice. Behaviorism in the current way of thinking would take into account learning history, which would explain how different persons have different responses to the same situations. It also takes into consideration how the context of the situation may influence the outcome, such as snowy weather conditions or the fact that a person was busily distracted with their cell phone when coming to the intersection.
Old paradigms of thinking about behaviorism include methodological behaviorism; the gist of it being that if behavior was not observed, it did not exist and was not worthy of study. Clearly this created problems for people who want to understand emotions. Current ways of thinking of behaviorism (radical as opposed to methodological) refutes the idea that behavior has to be publicly observed in order to exist. All the “stuff” that occurs within the skin (emotions!) are alive, real, in existence, and worthy of study. The more global way of understanding behavior is that any behavior is worthy of analysis and understanding. Thus, an emotion or a highly conflictual altercation (the stuff that comes up in therapy) is clearly worthy of study.
Cognitive Behavior Therapies (CBT) often emphasized the thought process that ensues when a person reacts to a situation. People have a tendency (especially when panicked or a in a bad mood) to think the worst will happen, jump to conclusions, and make assumptions about situations and people that are not accurate. Cognitive Behavior Therapies have often emphasized the thought process/ thinking/ cognition; and often challenged persons’s perceptions of reality. This can get tricky when dealing with paranoia, post-traumatic stress, or psychotic thought processes; and can create even more problems when people are told their perceptions of reality are not, indeed, real. Focusing solely on cognitive ways to solving problems can result in trying to think one’s way out of pain and discomfort, which sort of backfires when people have problems with rumination, over-analyzing, or overthinking. That being said, CBT has been helpful to numerous people and has had a key role in reducing suffering, depression, and anxiety.
Exposure therapies are often considered under the umbrella of cognitive behavior therapies and include specific treatment for anxiety disorders. This is where a person comes into contact with a feared stimulus and behaves differently from the typical response. The goal is to increase one’s tolerance to anxiety, increase the repertoire of responding adaptively, and not let feared stimuli control one’s life. Here are some typical examples of treating anxiety through exposures: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (people that are disgusted by dirty things are encouraged to touch dirty things such that they become less bothered by dirty things over time: watch the move Dirty Filthy Love), Social Anxiety (people are encouraged to join a small group and share more openly than they otherwise would and feel less isolated and have better social abilities), and Borderline Personality Disorder (exposures help people tolerate emotions better such as practicing breathing when angry instead of ranting angrily or picking a fight).
Behavioral Activation is a treatment for depression that includes engaging people in life situations that increase natural reinforcers. In a nutshell, the behavior of depression is often one of detachment, withdrawal, inhibition of activity, loss, flatness, tearfulness, loss of focus, and sometimes aggravation. Activating behavior may include increasing pleasurable activity, engaging in meaningful behavior, doing things to build mastery and challenge oneself, managing stress and time management, and decreasing commitments that result in being overwhelmed. These are ways of managing mood that don’t include medication. (A really great book on this is Overcoming Depression One Step At A Time, which can be found under “books I recommend.”)
The newer behavior therapies or “Third Wave” therapies are often considered an offshoot of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Technically, behavior is given an emphasis over cognition. This is because behaviorists consider the thought process to be only one aspect of behavior and is not given any kind of special treatment. For political purposes (and for the general lay population) this distinction can be confusing and for some, probably not necessary. However, all behavior is open to analysis and one’s thought process is not the only focus of treatment. The idea of Third Wave therapies is a return to radical behaviorism (hence the analysis of behavior), an acknowledgement of the ways behaviorism has been both hurtful/ helpful/ misunderstood, and an expansion of how behavioral ways of thinking have been making phenomenal comebacks (and changes) on intimate, psychotherapeutic relationships.
Third Wave behavior therapies are different in that they are interested in two things: 1) Context and 2) Function. Behavior (which can include anything you want to analyze for the focus of your therapy session, such as an emotion) can happen anywhere in time and space. Current conditions (ie., the context under which behavior occurs) will influence behavior. Behavior does not happen in a vacuum and is not situationally isolated. It is fluid and subject to change. Consider how “repressed” memories “show up”, and if you more or less likely to remember repressed memories if you have a warm, caring therapist who is expressing curiosity about your past. How you remember, what you remember, and what you are willing to tell this person are all influenced by the current context. If, in your learning history, people are not to be trusted; a warm caring person asking you this personal information may result in you changing the subject or talking excessively. Learning history clearly plays a part in how a person will respond to a therapist, and again shows how the overly simplistic stimulus-response models of early behaviorism fall short.
The function of behavior has to do with the purpose it serves. The same behavior of two people can have very different purposes, show up in different settings or circumstances, and have different outcomes or consequences. The behavior of vomiting after eating (such as the case of bulimia) can serve to communicate, validate, express anger, maintain privacy, prove a point, assert independence, or prevent the discomfort of feeling full. The fact that the same behavior does different things for different people and has different consequences makes it such that two people with the same diagnosis can need very different treatments. This is partly why there is so much confusion and controversy over mental health diagnoses and their varying treatments, and why any one “template” approach doesn’t work the same way for any two people.
Third Wave Behavior therapies are also coming to terms with spirituality. While past therapies focused on making unwanted emotions/ thoughts etc. dissipate, new wave therapies are getting people to look at what they want more of, what they value, and what is important to them. Instead of saying “What do you want to avoid or get rid of in your life?” they are saying “What do you want more of in your life?” or “How are you missing out on what is important because anxiety/ depression gets in the way?” There is a renewed focus on mindfulness and acceptance and a recognition that painful thoughts and emotions are part of human existence.
We’ve worked really hard to eradicate pain and that hasn’t worked, so what can be done instead? Making peace with our discomfort by not letting anxiety and our depression control our life is done through some applied principles from Bhuddism, mindfulness, and the concept of being “zen.” Spirituality clearly has helped many people cope, come up with their “why”, and rely on powers outside of their control to help them survive emotional pain. (Ie., “Let go and let God”). The shift in Third Wave Therapies is to look towards a more expansive way of thinking and also addresses a more existential concern. You don’t have be clinically depressed to benefit from examining values, enhancing your quality of life, and growing as a person. And at least one of these treatments, ACT, is being used in non-psychotherapy settings such as organizational and business consulting. (The Association for Contextual and Behavioral Sciences is the umbrella organization of the growing interest in Third Wave Behavior therapies, and offer an annual international conference to interested parties. Click here to visit their website.)
Third Wave Behavior Therapies are generally considered to be Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Functional Analytic Psychotherapy (FAP), and various mindfulness and compassion based therapies. DBT was somewhat of an early forerunner in bringing acceptance based practices to psychotherapy, the “dialectic” being that of acceptance vs. change. This was somewhat in response to the fact that Cognitive Behavior Therapy, despite the multitude of people that it helped, was a therapy based solely in principles of what needed to be changed. DBT skills include prayer, radical acceptance, finding meaning, and value-based goal setting. DBT’s founder, Marsha Linehan, grew up Catholic and developed the treatment based on her exposure to Eastern thinking and Bhuddism; she has written multiple articles on spirituality.
ACT is complex and a bit tricky to explain, but here are two principles that ACT encompasses: 1) Flexibility, or a flexible repertoire of responses to life’s challenges. A metaphor I heard recently was like a car hitting a pot hole- a car with no “bounce” or “give” is like a person who has difficulty adapting to life’s bumps. The more shock absorption that a car has, the more likely the car can navigate the pot holes and not get “tied up” or “stuck”. 2) Impermanence, or “self-as-context”. This means that the self that is “you” will change over time but still be the same “you”, and this “you” can change perspective in time and space. This matters in the sense that people who are really and truly “stuck” sometimes experiences their situations and self-criticism as permanent. The self-as-context concept often entails compassion focused exercises that allow you to see yourself differently; with compassion, and as an observer who can take a step back form being “fused” with emotional pain and rigid thought patterns. Compassion based practices have capitalized on the approach and address concerns related to extreme self-hatred, shame, and the ubiquity of human suffering. (Compassion Based Therapy is also considered it’s own independent treatment).
FAP at its heart has based its tenets on the principles of Awareness, Courage, and Love. (Known as the ACL model). Clients are encouraged to consider how their relational problems outside of session also show up inside of session, and to bring these similarities under direct observation as they show up in the relationship with the therapist. Immediacy (ie., What are you feeling right now as you are telling me this?) can evoke the discomfort clients often feel when in intimate situations, and encourage clients to develop more meaningful and fulfilling relationships via the interaction with their therapist. FAP is highly evocative, and clients grow in the courage to address things in therapy they tend to avoid. Because lack of intimacy is associated with mortality, intimacy and connection is a value that shows up consistently across FAP. If you think about this treatment from a behavioral standpoint, the environmental context (how a therapist responds) can have a profound influence on generating change. If the relationship with the therapist had no influence on the client, there would be no such thing as psychotherapy. Thus the focus on the environment (ie, the behavior of the therapist) is consistent with a behavioral approach to treatment.
The best way that I think of behaviorism is that there is no permanent, fixed, or reification of private experience such as thoughts, emotions, or sensations. The fluidity and impermanence of how we experience “self” changes across time, contexts, and situations. Problems often ensue when our thoughts are treated as structures, things, or objects. Problems crop up when we think we “have”, possess, or own the experiences within our skin. In order to “not have” depression, something would have change. Consider the difference between “having” depression vs. “experiencing” oneself as depressed. Which do you think is more hopeful, temporary, and subject to change? Third Wave Behaviorism, or “radical” behaviorism is making its comeback.