Using Behavioural Experiments to Treat Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety and depression can cause use to inadvertently develop a filter on our perception of reality, which can be exceptionally harmful to us and our wellbeing. We can use our past adverse experiences and as a way to organise thoughts and apply them to what is displayed to them in the present. So, though we may be right here in the moment, what we see is often distorted, leaving us with a negative outlook. Because of this, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) uses what is called behavioural experiments to help clients see that their assumptions are not necessarily accurate, and guide them in challenging their negative beliefs.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Types of CBT Behavioural Experiments

First and foremost, there are many different kinds of behavioural experiments that can be performed. However, it is important to note that even if each is unique in their own way, they all have one underlying purpose: to give clients the ability to explore and test the truthfulness of their beliefs. They each unlock opportunities for people with anxiety and depression to understand what they are feeling and challenge how they see the world and the people around them.

  • Discovery Experiments:Many times, those with anxiety or depression have a specific idea in their head about the world, themselves, and people, but they do not have substantial evidence as to why they believe their instilled views. For example, someone who has a core fear about something might not have an apparent reason why they are afraid, other than the feeling that if they do not avoid something, the result would be bad. With discovery experiments, it helps people see situations from a different angle and learn more about what happened to feel more at peace. They may come to terms that avoidance of a fear might not always lead to something negative after all, which will reduce their anxiety.

  • Hypothesis Testing: Another way to conduct a behavioural experiment is by hypothesis testing. This is for those people who feel like their positions are concrete and 100% real, even if they are not. With this CBT test, anxiety and/or depression patients will go through a series of steps as if they were in an actual scientific lab:
    • They will make a prediction on what they think will happen.
    • Next, the experiment will be performed to test that initial hypothesis.
    • In the end, the results will be examined to see just how accurate their distorted views actually are.

How Behavioural Experiments Are Commonly Done

CBT therapists are excellent mediators and valuable resources in helping people come up with ideal experiments to test their beliefs. However, you can still do this on your own, in your own time, if you wish. As a patient or someone trying to conduct a behavioural experiment on their own, you have to look at this method in a scientific sense. Stay curious, methodical, and approach it with an open mind.

1.     Identify the Belief You Want to Test: What is it about yourself and your thoughts you want to see is true or not? Write down what you believe and why. For example, I cannot go out in public because I will make a fool out of myself.

2.     Rate Your Belief: Using the example above, how sure are you that if you go out for a nice dinner with friends or family that you will do something that will cause embarrassment and unwanted attention towards yourself? If you believe that 100%, then rate it as such. Tip: Sometimes, it can help if you split the rating up in a logical sense and an emotional one.

3.     Plan Out Your Experiment: Ways you can do this include surveys or even hypotheses testing, as mentioned above. When planning, scope out any obstacles that could get in the way of your experiment to skew the results as well. You want this to be as accurate as possible. For instance, alcohol might be an obstacle, as it can hinder your actions in public.

4.     Do the Experiment: Go ahead and follow through with your plan. It will require courage and perseverance on your part, but doing so will provide you with the desired answer you have been seeking. Just remind yourself why you are doing it, and don’t quit.

5.     Record Your Result and Reflect: What did you find out? Write down what happened and compare it with your original hypothesis. Was it accurate? Was it close? Was it way off? Based on what you found, rate your new belief again. You might come to terms that your once 100% certainty in your view is now 50% or lower. 

Things to Remember About CBT

Though CBT treatment for anxiety and depression is quite promising and potentially life-changing, it is perfectly normal for people to feel a sense of trepidation. Just know that your therapist will be guiding you throughout the entire process and will only work with you on things that you are willing to target. Overall, some things to keep in mind when going into this include:

  • One of the main reasons why people hesitate to seek help in the first place is because they are scared to open themselves up and be vulnerable with someone else. With CBT, we gently tackle these issues head on. So, with CBT, expect to explore painful feelings and experiences that have occurred in your life. It might feel scary, but it is important you uncover underlying subjects to really discover the root of the problem. In the end, you will come out stronger and realise that those internal struggles might not have as much control over you as you once thought they did.

  • Remember, the success of CBT and behavioural experiments is entirely dependent on you. Therapists cannot make you comply or sway you into wanting to get better. You need to be the one to trust the process and do the work with the support and motivation from them.

  • Confrontation is key here, and the more you confront, the more you may feel uncomfortable. However, the more you talk and come face to face with beliefs and assumptions, the more your worse feelings will dissipate and become replaced with better ones.

  • No matter what, you are the one in control. At all times, you have the ability to push forward or to halt the breaks in a session. You have the power to speed up, slow down, or even pull yourself from an experiment if you feel like you are not ready yet to handle it. In summary, you are the one setting the pace, not the other way around, and it is essential you realise that and are never feeling trapped.


It is not uncommon for counsellors or psychologists to encourage patients to perform in behavioural experiences to test their reality and beliefs. This is a compelling CBT technique that is evident in helping people realise that what they are interpreting is not always accurate or what is going on. It brings the truth to the surface that what they may be thinking, which tends to harm their mental health, is not always true. This enlightening allows people to uncover what is real and what is not and as a result challenge these negative thoughts and beliefs and act in a way is better for them.

Quest Psychology Services are specialists in providing therapy for Anxiety and Depression within Salford, Manchester. To discuss getting help for you or a loved one call us on 07932737335

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