Asking about the benefits of behavioral therapy is analogous to inquiring about the benefits of psychotherapy, and the question is difficult to answer. The reason is that there are many different types of behavior therapy, just as there are many schools of thought that may govern the practice of other forms of therapy. Specific advantages may change with each type used, and with each client who uses these methods. As with any other form of therapy, the best predictor of success is strength of alliance between client and therapist; specific method tends to be less important.
In recent times, certain types of behavioral therapy have grown in popularity. Methods like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are all part of this emerging group that are called third wave behavioral therapies. Each has different emphases, but all work on teaching clients how to handle difficult emotions, how to think about what they’re experiencing and how to learn ways of changing actions in response to difficult thoughts. CBT does this by getting people to identify hot thoughts that represent core beliefs that aren’t true, DBT works on getting people to change their perceptions of situations by reframing, and ACT, which leans heavily on Buddhism, trains people to accept negative thinking without acting.
All three programs have been shown to be useful in a variety of settings. CBT is considered particularly beneficial for dealing with phobias, for ongoing posttraumatic stress, and to handle mild anxiety or depression. It has also recently been indicated as useful in the treatment of adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. DBT has been principally explored as useful in borderline personality disorder. Studies on ACT suggest it may benefit numerous people, and might address those who are very ill with conditions like schizophrenia.
Added to these advantages is the time-limited nature of many behavioral therapies. People can learn to use CBT, DBT, or ACT in relatively short periods of time, though they must be committed to doing homework. These therapies don’t spend years exploring a patient’s psyche or finding deep childhood wounds. Many of them can be completed in about 20 sessions, though some clients still require refreshers. There’s also less emphasis on the developing transferential relationship between therapist and client, though it would be difficult to ignore this completely.
Supporters of these methods claim some additional behavioral therapy benefits. Therapies based on behavior are often thought scientific and quantifiable, which may make it easier to evaluate their success. The same may not always be said for some forms of talk therapy.
Behavioral therapies can also be used in conjunction with talk therapies. They can address a specific problem and find resolutions while issues of the psyche are still explored in greater depth. Many therapists regularly incorporate methods of the third wave therapies into practices that are principally based on talk therapy.