Systematic Desensitization: 3 Steps of Desensitization

The psychological technique of systematic desensitization is used to help people overcome their fears. It involves gradually exposing the person to the thing that they are afraid of, starting with a very small amount and slowly increasing it over time. This process helps the person become more comfortable with what they are afraid of, until they no longer feel scared or anxious around it. Systematic desensitization can be used for a wide range of fears, from fear of public speaking to fear of spiders. It is a safe and effective way to deal with fear, and can be used on its own or in combination with other therapies.

What Is Systematic Desensitization?

Systematic desensitization is a form of behavioral therapy based on the classic conditioning theory. It was developed in the 1950s by South African psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe.

The “Systematic Desensitization” method is by Joseph Wolpe in the 1950s. Systematic desensitization is exposure/confrontation therapy is one of the types of behavioral therapy based on the “classical conditioning” principle. In this therapy model, the subject of anxiety is subjected to a kind of relaxation process at the same time to reduce the symptoms of anxiety, while subjected to anxiously directed imagery or real-time exposure to events or places.

systematic desensitization

Systematic desensitization therapy aims to replace a phobia‘s fear response with another functional (eg. relaxation) response. In other words, it aims to ensure that a “relaxation” response gradually replaces the fear response created by the conditional stimulus by using “counter-conditioning”. The therapy process becomes more comfortable and effective when systematic desensitization is applied under hypnosis.

In the systematic desensitization method, a stage order has been developed to confront the feared stimulus. For example, a patient with a fear of flying is asked to imagine various scenes that cause varying anxiety levels. While imagining a person traveling by plane causes little anxiety, imagining that he is traveling by plane in stormy weather causes more anxiety.

Wolpe assessed how much anxiety his patients experienced on a scale from 0 to 100. The next process during the stage was passed when the patient could tolerate the trouble caused by the stimulus he/she dreamed of. If the patient was having trouble imagining, Wolpe stopped dreaming and started relaxation exercises. He continued the exercises until the boredom disappeared. Wolpe developed and perfected an action protocol for the treatment of phobias called Systematic Depersonalization.

The main idea of ​​Wolpe is that no one feels comfortable and anxious at the same time. Relaxation prevents feelings of anxiety or fear. What the patient experiences against any object or situation.

In this protocol, there are three steps or steps that need to be taken after the clinician has made a comprehensive case formulation or what Wolpe has called “behavior analysis.”

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Steps of Systematic Desensitization

Relaxation Techniques Training

Wolpe took the muscle relaxation model and modified it to be something compact and more efficient. At this initial stage, the professional should teach patients some relaxation techniques to be performed later in the following stages of treatment.

Creating an Anxiety Hierarchy

At this second stage, the therapist and the patient prepare a list of any form, containing a set of situations or contexts that create a sense of anxiety in the person. Those situations are listed in a hierarchical order from the least distressful to the most anxiety-inducing.

Systematic Desensitization

The next and last step is to put the patient’s relaxation exercises to work and provide a complete relaxation. Meanwhile, the psychologist will show or re-display different images from the previous step, starting with a lower level of anxiety. Depending on the patient’s reaction, the patient will switch to the next high-grade image or the process will be repeated until their anxiety levels are reduced.

Despite the possible failures in the process such as the order of the process is not enough or the patient cannot relax, systematic desensitization has proved to be one of the most successful interventions in the treatment of phobias.

Last Updated on December 10, 2022 by Lucas Berg


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