What is Systematic Desensitization

Systematic desensitization Therapy is a type of behavioral therapy used to treat intense phobias. According to simplyspsychology.org, it was developed by Wolpe during the 1950s. It is based on Pavlov’s Principle of Conditioning, according to suite101.com. Systematic Desensitization Therapy is actually made up of two other types of therapy, Relaxation Therapy and Exposure Therapy.

How does it work?

The patient is first taught to recognize the signs of anxiety, muscle tension and rapid breathing. They are then taught how to relax their muscles and slow their breathing to ease anxiety and create relaxation in the body.

Once the patient has learned the relaxation techniques, they are exposed to the object, or situation, that causes their irrational fear. This is done by showing them pictures or having them think about the object or situation. Starting in the 1990s, with the advance of technology, virtual reality became another means of initial exposure. When their thoughts, the pictures or the virtual reality cease to cause fear in the patient, they are brought a little bit closer to whatever is causing their fear. They are progressively exposed to the object or situation as their anxiety lessens. This is done until there is no fear, or at least a lessening of fear, associated with the object or situation.

For example, if a person is afraid of public places, such as the mall, they are first exposed to pictures or virtual reality making them feel as if they are there. When this no longer affects them, they may go to the parking lot of the mall, then to the entrance, and, eventually, they are taken into the mall. They pause at each phase until the patient is able to be there without fear.

Suppose the patient is afraid of mice. They may be exposed to pictures of mice, then virtual reality of a mouse in the room. Once their anxiety ceases, they may be exposed to a mouse in a cage across the room, then standing next to the cage with the mouse in it, and finally holding the mouse.

Exercise therapy with caution

Since patients being treated with systematic desensitization therapy suffer from extreme fear, there is a possibility of major panic. Therefore, this therapy must be used with caution. It must also be used by a therapist who is trained in the use of systematic desensitization therapy and who also possesses plenty of experience in the field.

It is also important that the relaxation therapy be taught first. The patient must have learned it well enough to be able to control their anxiety through these techniques.

Is it effective?

According to minddisorders.com, in most patients, there is a reduction in symptoms. They are able to go to places they used to avoid or to be around animals that used to frighten them, without the extreme anxiety previously associated with them.

However, Yates discovered (as cited on Suite101.com) that exposure therapy may be just as effective without the use of relaxation therapy. Then, in 1975, a review by Marks found systematic desensitization therapy to be no more effective than exposure therapy alone. Since that time, its use has began to diminish.