Behavior modification therapy offers practical solutions to the complicated problems of drug abuse and dependence. Behavior modification has been applied to a broad spectrum of risky health behaviors, from substance abuse to smoking, overeating and compulsive gambling. Behavior modification has also been used to reduce the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other behavioral conditions. This therapeutic approach is based on the idea that if destructive habits can be learned, they can also be changed using a system of positive and negative reinforcement.
In many of the top-rated drug rehab programs in the country, you’ll find behavior modification at the heart of addiction treatment. Behavior modification techniques can help you overcome the thought patterns, social cues and habits that make it so hard to quit using drugs or drinking. This therapeutic model may be used in individual counseling sessions or in group sessions to teach addicts how to make choices that will lead to healthy, fulfilling lives.
Origins of the Therapy
Behavior modification therapy is based on the theories of psychologist B.F. Skinner, who proposed the idea that most behaviors develop through a learning process, which is reinforced by the consequences of the behavior. This form of learning, called “operant conditioning,” takes place throughout our lives, affecting the decisions we make. When we make a choice that leads to pleasurable or rewarding experiences, this behavior is reinforced, and we’ll probably repeat it. When we make a choice that leads to harmful or frightening experiences, the negative effects of this behavior will probably lead us to avoid it in the future.
Addiction develops as a result of the pleasurable sensations that come from using a drug or drinking alcohol. In the early stages, we may continue to seek out drugs because they give us a sense of euphoria, self-confidence, energy or calm. We tend to overlook the negative consequences, like physical illness, financial problems, relationship conflicts and legal difficulties, because the initial gratification of that buzz or high is so intense.
Through behavioral modification therapy, recovering addicts can learn how to focus on the negative consequences of a learned behavior (in this case, substance abuse) instead of thinking only of those pleasurable feelings. They also learn to identify and remember the positive effects of staying sober, such as:
- Improved physical health
- Stronger personal relationships
- A greater sense of self-respect
- Better employment prospects
- Fewer legal and financial problems
Clinical studies have confirmed that behavior modification therapy can be highly effective at treating addiction and preventing relapse. A study published in the International Journal of Addiction followed a group of 130 patients in a drug treatment program who went through behavioral modification. Behavioral modification focused on the patients’ substance abuse, their behavior at work and at home, their ability to make choices and their ability to analyze their own actions. Three years after the program ended, 82 percent of the graduates were still abstinent and maintained the benefits of their therapy.
Addiction as a Learned Behavior
In the behavior modification model, substance abuse is treated as a learned behavior rather than a moral failing or a weakness of character. People become addicted to drugs and alcohol because they receive positive reinforcement from their effects. If you think about the first few times you used a drug, you may remember a time when you began to depend on the way the drug made you feel. You may remember feelings like:
- Being free from stress
- Forgetting about your problems
- Feeling relief of emotional pain
- Feeling more attractive or sociable
- Being overcome by euphoria
- Getting a rush of energy
But what about the negative consequences, like the sickening hangovers, the drunk driving arrests, the fights with your spouse or the loss of a good job? Unless these consequences — a form of negative reinforcement — were more powerful than the lure of addiction, you probably kept drinking or using until you ran out of options.
Behavior modification has given a lot of addicts hope by helping them “unlearn” destructive behaviors. Instead of treating addiction as a personal failure, behavior modification therapy treats it as a problem that can be solved by replacing negative choices with positive choices.
Positive Reinforcement in Addiction Therapy
Positive reinforcement is the use of a reward system to encourage the repetition of healthy behaviors. In the first stage of therapy, the counselor and client set goals for the client’s recovery. These goals might include staying sober for a set period of time, completing a rehab program, attending therapy with a spouse or developing a sober hobby. Goals may be broken down into small, manageable steps, like staying sober for 24 hours at a time. To support these goals, the counselor teaches the client to concentrate on the positive effects of staying sober and the negative consequences of drinking or using. During a session, a counselor might ask questions like:
- What were you doing or feeling just before the last time you drank?
- What led you to decide to drink?
- How did you feel after you drank?
- What could you have done instead of drinking?
In some programs, a form of behavior modification called contingency management (CM) is used to support recovery. In CM, each positive choice is rewarded with a voucher, which can be exchanged for items like special meals, clothing or entertainment. According to the American Psychological Association, vouchers promote the recovery process by reinforcing healthy choices, raising self-esteem and helping patients stay focused on their goals. Because dropout rates are high in drug rehabilitation programs, incentives to stay sober and finish treatment are important tools for therapists and clients alike.
Advantages of Behavior Modification Therapy
There are many different therapeutic models used in addiction treatment, and no single model will work for everyone. Some clients have better results with psychotherapy that explores their reasons for abusing drugs in greater depth. Some patients have success with the 12-step approach, which treats addiction as a physical and spiritual disease that must be addressed by surrendering one’s will to a higher power. Finding the right approach to treatment for you may require a combination of strategies. What are some of the advantages of behavior modification therapy, and why is it used so often in drug rehab programs?
- Behavioral modification provides a realistic, effective solution for a problem that often seems overwhelming.
- Behavior modification therapy provides practical tools for dealing with the triggers of substance abuse, such as conflict, intense emotions or stress.
- The idea of addiction as a learned behavior can help you overcome the social stigma of addiction as a “moral failure.”
- Counseling sessions are focused and goal-oriented, giving you a sense of progress from the very beginning.
Behavior modification therapy can be used on its own or combined with other treatment strategies to broaden your perspective and enrich the recovery process. This therapeutic model lends itself to group counseling sessions, where group members can exchange coping skills and offer their encouragement and support. The techniques you learn in your individual and group counseling sessions can give you a renewed sense of hope, knowing that you have a set of tools for handling life’s challenges in sobriety.
In the supportive, comfortable atmosphere at Axis, you can modify the behaviors that have been destroying your future. Through the repetition of healthy activities in a structured environment, we help you make the changes that ultimately lead to freedom from drug addiction. Our rehab specialists are available at any time to answer your questions and discuss solutions.