Extinction Burst Phenomenon

Have you ever noticed that when you try to break a habit or change a behavior, things often get worse before they get better? This puzzling pattern can be explained by a phenomenon known as the “extinction burst.” In the realm of psychology, extinction refers to the gradual elimination of a learned behavior when the reinforcing consequences are no longer present. However, during this process, the behavior may increase in intensity temporarily. In this article, we will discuss the concept of Extinction Burst Phenomenon and discuss strategies for effectively managing them.

Understanding Behavioral Extinction Burst Phenomenon

Before we delve into the intricacies of extinction bursts, it is essential to understand the concept of behavioral extinction. When a behavior is no longer reinforced or rewarded, its frequency tends to decrease over time. This process is often used in behavior modification techniques to eliminate unwanted habits or responses. However, the path to behavioral change is rarely smooth, and the phenomenon of extinction bursts sheds light on the unexpected patterns that can emerge during this process.

What is an Extinction Burst Phenomenon?

An extinction burst refers to a temporary increase in the frequency, duration, or intensity of behavior that is being extinguished. When an individual no longer receives the anticipated reinforcement or reward for a particular behavior, they may exhibit an initial surge in that behavior. This can be perplexing and disheartening, as it may seem like the efforts to change are backfiring. However, it is crucial to understand that an extinction burst is a sign that the process of behavioral change is underway.

Examples of Extinction Bursts in Daily Life

Extinction bursts can manifest in various areas of life. Let’s consider a common example of someone attempting to quit smoking. Initially, when they decide to quit and go without a cigarette, they might experience intense cravings and a strong urge to smoke. This is the extinction burst in action. Similarly, a child throwing a tantrum when their request is denied or a salesperson making more aggressive pitches when faced with rejections are other instances where extinction bursts can be observed.

The Psychology Behind Extinction Bursts

To comprehend the psychology behind extinction bursts, it is essential to consider the role of reinforcement in shaping behavior. When a behavior is consistently reinforced, it becomes more likely to occur. The removal of that reinforcement disrupts the expected pattern and triggers a response in the individual. The initial surge in behavior during an extinction burst is believed to be a result of the individual’s increased motivation to obtain the previously available reinforcement.

Factors Influencing the Intensity of Extinction Bursts

The intensity of an extinction burst can vary depending on several factors. Firstly, the strength of the original behavior and the reinforcement it received play a significant role. The stronger the association between the behavior and its reinforcement, the more intense the extinction burst may be. Additionally, the history of reinforcement and the frequency of the behavior also influence the magnitude of the burst. Understanding these factors can help individuals and professionals anticipate and manage extinction bursts effectively.

How to Manage Extinction Bursts

Managing extinction bursts requires patience, persistence, and a strategic approach. Here are some strategies that can help individuals navigate through this challenging phase of behavioral change:

  1. Recognize and Acknowledge the Extinction Burst: Understanding that an extinction burst is a normal part of the process can alleviate frustration and discourage relapses. Acknowledge the temporary increase in the behavior and remind yourself that it is a sign of progress.
  2. Maintain Consistency: During an extinction burst, it is crucial to maintain consistency in withholding reinforcement. Giving in to the behavior during this phase can reinforce it further and impede progress. Stay committed to the desired change.
  3. Distract and Substitute: Engaging in alternative activities or substituting the undesired behavior with a healthier or more productive one can redirect the energy and focus during an extinction burst. Find positive outlets to channel the heightened motivation.
  4. Seek Support: Surround yourself with a supportive network of friends, family, or professionals who can provide encouragement and guidance during the challenging moments of an extinction burst. Their presence can be invaluable in staying on track.
  5. Practice Self-Care: Managing extinction bursts can be emotionally draining. Take care of your mental and physical well-being through self-care activities such as exercise, relaxation techniques, and engaging in hobbies you enjoy. This will help you stay resilient throughout the process.

Recognizing and Responding to Extinction Bursts in Others

Extinction bursts are not limited to personal development; they can also occur when supporting others in their behavioral change journeys. When someone you know is going through an extinction burst, it is essential to approach the situation with empathy and understanding. Avoid reinforcing the undesired behavior and instead provide reassurance, guidance, and positive reinforcement for progress made.

The Importance of Patience and Persistence

Patience and persistence are crucial virtues when navigating through an extinction burst. It is important to remember that the temporary increase in the behavior does not indicate failure but rather signifies progress. By staying patient and persistent, you can overcome the challenges and continue on the path toward lasting behavioral change.

Overcoming Extinction Bursts in Personal Development

Extinction bursts often occur in personal development journeys, such as breaking bad habits or acquiring new skills. Recognizing and understanding the phenomenon can empower individuals to overcome challenges and persist in their pursuit of growth. Embrace the temporary discomfort as a stepping stone towards personal transformation.

Extinction Bursts in Addiction Recovery

In addiction recovery, extinction bursts are a common occurrence. When individuals eliminate substances that were previously associated with pleasure or relief, they may experience intense cravings and urges. Understanding that these bursts are part of the healing process can provide reassurance and strengthen resilience in recovery.

The Role of Therapy in Managing Extinction Bursts

Therapy can play a vital role in managing extinction bursts, especially in complex behavioral patterns or addiction recovery. Therapists equipped with knowledge and techniques can help individuals understand the underlying causes of their behaviors, navigate through extinction bursts, and develop effective coping strategies.

Cultivating Emotional Resilience during Extinction Bursts

Emotional resilience is essential when dealing with extinction bursts. It allows individuals to bounce back from setbacks and maintain motivation despite temporary increases in undesired behaviors. Cultivating emotional resilience through mindfulness, self-reflection, and seeking emotional support can contribute to successful behavioral change.


Extinction bursts are a natural part of the process of behavioral change. While they may initially seem discouraging, understanding the psychology behind extinction bursts and adopting appropriate strategies can help individuals navigate through this phase effectively. By recognizing and acknowledging the burst, maintaining consistency, seeking support, and practicing self-care, individuals can persevere and ultimately achieve lasting behavioral change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *