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Systematic Desensitization Therapy

Systematic desensitization is a behavioral technique commonly used to treat fear, anxiety disorders and phobias. Using this method, the person is engaged in some type of relaxation exercise and gradually exposed to an anxiety producing stimulus, like an object or place. This therapy aims to remove the fear response of a phobia, and substitute a relaxation response to the conditional stimulus gradually using counter conditioning.

Systematic desensitization is a behavioral technique whereby a person is gradually exposed to an anxiety-producing object, event, or place while being engaged in some type of relaxation at the same time in order to reduce the symptoms of anxiety.

For example, a very common phobia is the fear of flying. Some people become very anxious when travel involves a plane, while others may become extremely fearful at the thought of flying and refuse to go anywhere near a plane. Systematic desensitization has two steps that could be applied to a fear of flying in order to help reduce the anxiety involved.

First, a clinician or behavioral therapist would train the client with the fear of flying in relaxation techniques. This is very similar to meditation. The therapist could begin by asking the client to close his eyes, sit in a comfortable position, and relax all muscles while paying close attention to breathing slowly and naturally. The goal is to get the client into a completely relaxed physical state.

The next step in the systematic desensitization process involves making a list of the things that the person identifies as fearful related to flying in order from the least to the most anxiety-provoking. The list could look something like this:

  • Looking at a toy plane. (least)
  • Hearing or watching a plane fly in the sky.
  • Going to an airport.
  • Walking onto a plane.
  • Taking off and flying in the air. (most)

The client progresses along all the stages, beginning from least anxiety provoking while simultaneously using relaxation techniques. When they feel comfortable with one stage, i.e. they are no longer fearful, they move on to the next stage . This process is repeated while working through all of the situations until the most anxiety-provoking.