DiscoverCounselor Toolbox PodcastBehavior Modification and Goal Setting
Behavior Modification and Goal Setting

Behavior Modification and Goal Setting

Update: 2020-01-04


454 – Behavior Modification, Goal Setting and Avoiding Common Traps

Presented by: Dr. Dawn-Elise Snipes

Executive Director, AllCEUs

Host: Counselor Toolbox

A direct link to the CEU course is


~ Define behavior modification

~ Explore how behavior modification can be useful in practice

~ Learn basic behavior modification terms:

~ Unconditioned stimulus and response

~ Conditioned stimulus and response

~ Discriminitive stimuli

~ Learned helplessness

Why Do I Care

~ Change means doing something different or modifying a response

~ That response can be a neurochemical one (stress response) or an overt behavioral one (smoking)

~ Behavior modification principles will help you understand some of the reasons people act/react the way they do

~ By understanding what causes and motivates people’s behavior we can better address their issues

~ The focus on observable, measurable conditions to the exclusion of cognitive interpretation underscores the mind-body connection


~ Behavior modification in its truest form is concerned only with observable, measurable behaviors, stimuli and reinforcement

~ Emotions, interpretations and mental processes have no bearing

How can this be useful in practice

~ Traditional (strict) behavior modification can be quite useful in simplifying stimulus/reaction

~ Integrating the cognitive interpretations (labels) can help people in identifying and addressing what is causing their “distress” (Behaviorists would refer to excitatory response)

~ Understanding what causes feelings can also give people a greater sense of empowerment.


~ Puppies learn appropriate behavior through reinforcement and correction

~ Puppy 1 tackles puppy 2  threat

~ Puppy 2 responds by tackling puppy 1  counter threat

~ Both puppies get a surge of adrenaline

~ The puppy that dominates receives a dopamine surge that reinforces the prior behaviors — do that again.

~ If Puppy 1 plays too rough, then puppy 2 will either become more aggressive or leave.

~ Either way, puppy 1s behavior is punished.

Example 2

~ Humans have learned to label certain internal experiences with feeling words (angry, scared, happy)

~ Sally goes to a pet store

~ A puppy comes out, sits in her lap and puts is head on her leg

~ This contact (we know from studies) usually causes the release of dopamine and oxytocin –both reward chemicals

~ Sally calls this “happy”

~ If Sally had previously had a threatening experience with a dog, when she saw it, her body would likely respond by secreting adrenaline, kicking off the fight or flight reaction. Sally would label this as “fear”


~ The brain receives signals and, based on prior learning (conditioning), responds with either:

~ Fight/Anger or Flee/Fear (adrenaline/norepinepherine)

~ No reaction/neutral

~ Pleasure/Happy/Do this again (Dopamine/norepinephrine/Serotonin/GABA/Oxytocin?)

~ Humans label these different chemical responses with feeling words.

~ The same response can be labeled differently by two different people (fear vs. exhilaration)


~ People with anxiety, anger or resultant depression may need to:

~ Recondition X is not actually a threat (anymore)

~ Relabel

~ Excited vs. terrified

~ Stressed vs. hungry

~ Helpless/anxious vs. fat

~ ACT approach– X is causing me to have the feeling that…

~ In American culture we often use nonfeeling words to describe emotional states.

~ Part of recovery is identifying the physiological response to the stimulus and labeling it with a feeling word

Basic Terms

~ Unconditioned stimulus and response

~ Something that evokes an unconditioned/automatic response in an infant and adult

~ Loud noises

~ Pain

~ Excessive cold/heat

~ Contact

Basic Terms

~ Conditioned Stimulus

~ Something that in itself has no meaning to the person (yellow light)

~ Conditioned Response

~ The person’s reaction to the stimulus (slow down or floor it)

~ Conditioned stimuli and responses can be traced back to survival Fight-Flee-Forget-Repeat

Basic Terms

~ Discriminitive stimulus

~ All things being equal, the stimulus which triggers the reaction. (Includes vulnerabilities)

~ Going to work

~ Good day

~ Bad day

~ Learned Helplessness

~ A response which occurs when people have tried and failed to either fight or flee. Giving up.

Measurable Responses  Basic Feelings

~ Excitatory (Adrenaline, norepinephrine, Glutamate)

~ Fight  Anger, rage, resentment, jealousy, envy, regret, stress

~ Flee  Fear, anxious, nervous, apprehensive, timid

~ Neutral

~ Learned Helplessness  Depression

~ Inhibitory (Serotonin, GABA, Dopamine)

~ Repeat  Happy, elated, victorious, successful, competent

Fight or Flee

~ Stimuli that present a threat of pain or death can trigger the excitatory fight or flight response

~ Through experiences (conditioning) people learn what threats

~ They can defeat (fight/anger)

~ Will defeat them (flee/anxiety)

~ A useful intervention is to identify

~ The threat

~ Why is was labeled fight/anger/controllable or flee/fear/uncontrollable

~ Break down parts of the situation into controllable and uncontrollable

A Note About Threats

~ Fight or Flee (survival)

~ Basic Fears

~ Loss of Control

~ Underscores most fears

~ Fighting or fleeing provides control

~ Isolation & rejection

~ Primitive: Death/inability to procreate

~ Can be examined and counter conditioned

~ Is this really going to kill you?

~ Examine the exceptions

~ Examine alternate explanations

A Note About Threats

~ Fight or Flee (survival)

~ Basic Fears

~ The unknown

~ Primitive: Death/pain

~ Can be examined or counter conditioned

~ What is the probability this will end in death or pain?

~ How many other times have you confronted an unknown and the outcome was positive or neutral?

A Note About Threats

~ Fight or Flee (survival)

~ Basic Fears

~ Failure

~ Primitive: Death/pain

~ Can be examined or counter conditioned

~ What is the probability that if I fail it will result in death or pain?

~ If I fail, is that pain related to fear of rejection and/or loss of control?

~ How many other times have you tried and failed and the outcome was at least neutral?

~ How can you make failure into a positive or neutral (Hint: Learning experience)


~ Some stimuli elicit little or no response and are often ignored

~ MindLESSness can cause people to fail to identify

~ Positive stimuli  dopamine  “happy”

~ Negative stimuli  adrenaline  fight or flee

~ Little things build up and lead to a big reaction. (Water and the dam)

~ Negative stimuli can be reconditioned as neutral

~ Find the positive (snowy day)

~ Not worth the energy (rainy day)


~ Adding and noticing positive stimuli in the environment is vital

~ Grouchy day

~ Happy day

~ Positive stimuli in the environment can include

~ Smells (pumpkin spice…lol)

~ Sights (wildlife, my kids)

~ Sounds (babbling brook)

~ Feel (crisp autumn breeze)

Putting It Together

~ Humans label physiological reactions with feeling words.

~ What do you experience when you are scared?

~ What do you experience when you are angry?

~ How do you differentiate? (Hint: Prior experience)

~ What do you experience when you are happy?

Putting it Together

~ How can you use discriminative stimuli to

~ Increase happy responses

~ Increase a feeling of control and “self-efficacy”

~ Loss of control

~ The Unknown

~ Increase “self-esteem”

~ Rejection

~ Isolation

~ Increase feelings of “competence”

~ Failure

Putting it Together

~ How can you use discriminative stimuli to:

~ Decrease angry responses

~ Decrease anxious/fearful responses

~ Decrease learned helplessness


~ Behavior modification is concerned with the stimuli in the environment that evoke a response

~ Unconditioned stimuli evoke a response based upon survival needs

~ Conditioned stimuli have no meaning to the person, but, through experience, become associated with pleasure or pain/threat

~ The excitatory responses, anger and fear serve to protect the person from what they have in the past experienced as producing pain/being threatening.


~ Stimuli can be reconditioned in order to change the biochemical response (feeling)

~ People with a logical/experimental mindset often respond well to behavior modification techniques

~ It is imperative to include alternate responses.

~ In the next segment we will discuss

~ Reinforcement

~ Punishment

Nashville Counseling Un-Conference

A grass-roots conference put together by clinicians for clinicians.

Up to 20 CEUs from a NAADAC approved provider are available for addiction and mental health counselors and people seeking certification as addiction counselors

Join our Facebook Group

~ WHEN: February 23-25, 2018

~ WHERE: Nashville Metro (exact site TBD)

~ The main speaker each hour will also be simulcast online. Virtual attendance is possible for those who do not need “face-to-face” hours.


~ Whole conference (20 CEUs): $99 in advance; $149 at the door

~ One Day (8 CEUs): $45 in advance; $65 at the door

~ Registration will open in October 2017

Nashville Counseling Un-Conference

Call for Papers

~ Theme: Addressing the Growing Problem of Co-Occurring Disorders.

~ Suggested Topics:

~ Techniques and Effectiveness of Technology Assisted Therapy (e-therapy, text-based coaching, apps, online support and educational programs etc.)

~ Special Needs of Rural Populations

~ Transdiagnostic Approaches to Treatment

~ Relapse Prevention for Co-Occurring Disorders

~ Multidisciplinary Approaches to Treatment

~ Prevention and Early Intervention Strategies for Co-Occurring Disorders

~ Developing Self-Esteem and Emotion Regulation Skills in Youth

~ Case Management is not a counselor's job, but…It is

~ Exploring pharmacotherapy in the treatment of co-occurring disorders (SSRIs and their impact on compulsive behaviors for example)

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Behavior Modification and Goal Setting

Behavior Modification and Goal Setting

Charles Snipes