How is positive reinforcement used in psychotherapy?

Positive reinforcement is one of the most valuable resources in the field of psychotherapy, and many strategies used by psychologists have it at their core, as a key part of how they help patients.

But how exactly is this type of psychological phenomenon used when a person goes to a psychologist to overcome a mental disorder or to deal with something upsetting? In this article we will see how positive reinforcement is used in psychotherapy.

What is positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is a type of experience that occurs when a type of behavioral pattern is internalized and repeated over and over again because the individual associates it with a desirable situation that results from it.

As such, it is a very important process in psychology in the context of operant conditioning, i.e. the set of strategies used to modify the behavior of humans or animals which causes them to tend to engage in certain behaviors and not engage in others.

For example, we are confronted with a case of positive reinforcement when, for having helped his brother, the parents of a child praise his behavior and comment that they are proud of him; This experience is not only pleasant, but it will also help him to value more his role of “support” with his loved ones and to continue to behave in this way.

Sure a single experience of positive reinforcement is rarely enough to “secure” a pattern of behaviorThat’s why psychologists design behavior modification programs to help people properly manage their routines and ways of dealing with the emotions and thoughts they experience on a daily basis.

Of course, any psychological intervention program based on positive reinforcement must aspire to gradually increase the reinforcing element given to the patient to overcome his problem (for example, symbolic rewards after a certain number of days without taking medication) must aspire to be able to withdraw these reinforcing “rewards” at a certain time without the person suffering again from the problem for which he sought professional help.

Thus, positive reinforcement leads to a type of learning, but its use it is not limited to the world of parenthood and education, but it is also very relevant in the context of psychotherapy. Let’s see how.

How to use positive reinforcement in psychotherapy?

Now that we have seen the main characteristics of positive reinforcement, let’s move on to its most practical aspect in the field of psychotherapy: how is it used by psychologists to help their patients?

1. This is the heart of therapy for children with conduct disorders

We begin this list with a clear example of the use of positive reinforcement in psychological therapy, which is none other than intervention with children and adolescents who have developed behavioral disorders. This type of psychological disorder they are characterized by impulsiveness, the tendency to almost never respect the rules of coexistenceand a predisposition to drug use and violent behavior (physically and verbally).

Most of the time, these young people have only experienced hostility and punishment in their social interactions, which makes them feel even more disconnected from others. But thanks to positive reinforcement, they are able to feel for the first time that there are certain patterns of behavior that can bring them well-being not only in the short term, but also in the medium and long term. So, little by little they reconcile with the world and discover ways to ease the symptoms of this antisocial behavior disorder.

However, as we will see, positive reinforcement is not only used as a “reward” for “well-behaved children”, as is often understood in the context of parenting. In most cases, it is used in a more subtle way.

2. Helps to implement the techniques learned during the sessions with the psychologist

Psychotherapy is not limited to patient-therapist encounters; it also takes place in the time between sessions. But if the person does not apply what he learns in the consultation to his daily life, he will make little progress.

Therefore, positive reinforcement is used to to internalize the person in a dynamic of incentives that takes place on a daily basismaking him associate the key moments of his daily life with the problem for which he went to the psychologist, and knowing what to do to manage this kind of experience well.

For example, in the treatment of a phobia, this procedure helps the person to always be aware of the situations in which they must use a controlled breathing technique that allows them to “resist” the experience without fleeing or avoiding it, and seeing motivated by that goal, both because in her memory she associates it with getting a recall, and because the fact that in specific situations she herself can self-administer “the price”.

3. It allows the patient’s environment to provide this reinforcement

What happens when the professional is not there and no one is ready to give the reinforcer to the patient? This may seem like a problem, but it really isn’t, because the reason for this type of psychological intervention is that the “reward” becomes more and more abstract until it reaches a point where the person detects it in the very consequences of their behavior.

But to achieve this, psychologists often try to involve those close to the person they are working with, or give the patient a series of guidelines for those close to them to participate in this process of positive reinforcement. in the person’s social environment. For example, they are asked to inform others of the goal they have set for therapy, to keep them informed of their progress, etc. Thus, the positive reactions of these people and their interest in the process this will generate a series of expectations that will surround the patient and make him feel especially good as he gets better.

4. Helps Patients Adopt Healthy Lifestyles

On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that a large part of psychotherapy aims to help the person break the vicious circle of self-induced discomfort from an inappropriate lifestyle (caused in part by poor management of his emotions in the face of a problem affecting you). It therefore prepares you to adopt healthy habits: eat better, get enough sleep, avoid harmful hobbies, etc.

The reinforcement applied in the context of psychotherapy is part of this system of incentives which “follows” the patient on this path of good habits. And once you’ve been living like this for a few weeks, you probably have more energy and more focus to continue to achieve the goals set in psychotherapy.

Are you looking for psychological assistance services?

If in your daily life you face any type of psychological problem and you are considering undergoing psychotherapy, we invite you to contact our team of professionals.

In Advanced Psychologists you will find the possibility of being supported by expert psychologists in all areas of mental health; We have over two decades of experience serving adults, children and teens. We can help you in the areas of individual psychotherapy, couple therapy, family therapy, neuropsychology, speech therapy and psychiatry. In addition, sessions can be done in person at our center located in Madrid, or through video call sessions in online mode.

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