What is Systematic desensitization?

What is Systematic desensitization?

What is Systematic desensitization? Systematic desensitization is a therapeutic technique used in psychology to treat phobias, anxieties, and other fear-related disorders. It was developed by psychologist Joseph Wolpe in the 1950s as a form of behavioral therapy. The goal of systematic desensitization is to help individuals overcome their fears and anxieties by gradually exposing them to the feared object or situation in a controlled and safe manner. The technique is based on the principle of classical conditioning, specifically counterconditioning, where a new response is learned to replace an undesirable response. It involves three main steps:

  1. Relaxation training: The individual is taught various relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation. The goal is to induce a state of relaxation that can counteract the anxiety response.
  2. Creating an anxiety hierarchy: The person and therapist work together to develop a hierarchy of feared situations or stimuli. The hierarchy lists the various scenarios related to the fear, starting from the least anxiety-provoking to the most anxiety-provoking. For example, for someone with a fear of flying, the hierarchy might include looking at pictures of planes, going to an airport, boarding a plane, and eventually taking a flight.
  3. Systematic exposure: Starting from the least anxiety-provoking situation, the individual is exposed to the feared stimuli while maintaining a relaxed state. This exposure can occur in imagination (imaginal exposure) or in real-life (in vivo exposure). The individual progresses through the hierarchy, gradually facing more anxiety-provoking situations as they become more comfortable and less anxious. The process continues until the fear response is significantly reduced or eliminated.

The underlying principle of systematic desensitization is that by repeatedly associating relaxation with the feared stimuli or situations, the fear response becomes replaced by a relaxed response. Through this process, individuals can learn to cope with and eventually overcome their phobias or anxieties. It’s important to note that systematic desensitization should be conducted under the guidance of a trained therapist who can ensure the process is tailored to the individual’s specific needs and provide support throughout the treatment.

Shervan K Shahhian

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