Habit Reversal Training (HRT) and Behavioral Therapy

Habit Reversal Training (HRT) is a proven behavioral therapy for reducing tics associated with Tourette Syndrome. This treatment is also effective in the treatment of problematic behaviors associated with impulsive control disorders, such as trichotillomania. [ 1 ]

Tics, Tourette syndrome, and trichotillomania tend to start especially in children and are accompanied by other psychiatric disorders such as anxiety disorders. Therefore, a child-adolescent or adult psychiatrist should be supported with additional techniques for treatment. Habit Reversal Training can also be effective in correcting many repetitive behaviors from rhinotillexomania, onychophagia, and Dermatophagia.

The goal of HRT is to replace the unwanted habit with a new, more desirable behavior. To do this, HRT focuses on three main things:

1- Identifying the triggers or cues that lead to the unwanted habit

2- Learning new skills or behaviors to replace the habit

3- Increasing awareness of when the habit is occurring.

What is habit reversal training

Habit reversal training (HRT) is a behavior therapy used to treat habitual behaviors that are unwanted or interfere with daily functioning. The goal of HRT is to help the individual develop new, more positive behaviors to replace the unwanted habits. To do this, HRT first works on identifying the cues or triggers that lead to the undesired behavior. Once these triggers are identified, the individual can then work on developing and practicing new response strategies to interrupt and replace the old habit behavior. Over time, with repeated practice, the new behaviors become stronger and more automatic, eventually replacing the old habits entirely. Though it takes effort and commitment, HRT can be an extremely effective treatment for breaking unwanted habits and improving daily functioning.

What is Tourette Syndrome?

Tourette syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by the involuntary production of sounds and words, known as tics. The most common motor tics are eye blinking and facial grimacing, but other movement may also be involved.

Graph 1: The red line shows the increasing distress before the repetitive behavior and the decreasing distress at the end point. The frequency and tendency increase if this behavior can’t get under control.

Graph 2: If the distress is tolerated and the behavior is postponed, the distress increases first and then gradually decreases (not fast). But if the toleration progress is repeated it tends to decrease both the frequency and severity of the behavior.

habit reversal training (hrt)

Habit Reversal Training Steps

There are four main components of Habit Reversal Training. These components are awareness training, counter-response development, motivation, and skills dissemination. These components will be briefly explained below.

1- Awareness Training

The first task of the therapist is to inform the patient about the situation and ask them to cooperate.

Mindfulness training is geared towards increasing attention to tics or other problem behaviors. Thus, the self-control skills of the person affected by the negative behavior are increased. This training is carried out in several steps. These steps are applied during the session and/or given to the client as homework.

Step 1: Each time the person does the problematic behavior (eg plucking eyelashes, plucking skin, pulling hair) by looking in the mirror, describe the moment in detail.

Step 2: The therapist and patient agree that the therapist will tell the patient that every time a tic or impulsive behavior occurs. The therapist provides feedback to the patient over and over again until the patient notices any tics or impulsive behaviors.

Step 3: The patient is trained to identify the warning signs just before the tics or impulsive behaviors occur. These warning signs can be impulses, feelings, sensations, or thoughts.

2- Creating an Opposite Response:

Once the patient has acquired sufficient skill in recognizing tics or impulsive behaviors, the next step is to create an opposite response to replace old tics or impulsive behaviors. Generally, the counter-response is acceptable to tic or impulsive behavior, and it is preferable that this behavior lasts more than a few minutes. For example, nail files for a child who eats nails, chewing gum for a person with lip movements, are behaviors that can be replaced.

3- Motivation

In order to prevent recurrence of tic and impulsive behaviors, the patient can make a list of problems arising from these behaviors. Parents or relatives of the patient can also support and appreciate the patient for their success so far. It may also be useful to show others that they can suppress tic or impulsive behavior. It should be noted that every positive step is a very important step for treatment.

4- Dissemination of New Skills

In this part of the treatment, patients are asked to practice new skills they have acquired in many settings beyond what they have achieved until this point. For example, suppressing tics in a safe therapy environment is a relatively easy task, but the same skill should be demonstrated while studying, alone, at work, and in other settings.

Habit Reversal Training is practiced by different therapists as described above, with some minor differences. The treatment is usually administered in eight sessions and can be integrated into current cognitive behavioral therapy for other mental problems.

More: Training in Children With Tourette’s Disorder – A Pilot Study [ 2 ]

References: Dr. Halil Kara (Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist)

Last Updated on April 20, 2022 by Marilyn Walker

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Cindy Brown

Currently studying psychology and researching cognitive behavioral therapy. Also have studied comprative literature,interested in gender studies,.
3 thoughts on “Habit Reversal Training (HRT) and Behavioral Therapy”
  1. Hi,

    I was wondering if you have a resource available, in relation to a self help guide for tics for children and young people, specifically Habit reversal therapy or CBT techniques.



  2. How does one find a local therapist who may be trained in HRT and CBT?
    We live in Berkeley and have a young adult daughter who is struggling with dermatophagia.
    thank you!

    • Hello Robin.

      You can find all certified psychotherapists who are trained in CBT by Beck Institute here. Hope everything goes well for you and your family.

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