Systematic Desensitization – How To Eliminate Phobias


Clinicians use different psychotherapies to manage anxiety disorders. Systematic desensitization is one of those therapies which have got popularity among psychologist’s community for its effectiveness in reducing anxiety disorders. Therapy is effective in reducing symptoms of panic disorder and post traumatic stress disorder. Primarily, therapy has gained popularity through its remarkable effects on reduction of different types of phobias. In phobia, a person becomes highly sensitive toward any stimuli. For example, a person is phobic of dark places, so he develops sensitivity for such places. The purpose of this therapy is to reduce that sensitivity that is, to desensitize the person for dark places. In this way, a person will not feel anxiety when he will face any dark place. The second important thing is that the clinicians induce this desensitization systematically.

There are two important things in therapy sessions. The first thing is that, a clinician accommodates relaxation techniques along with the main therapy. The second thing is that the clinician breaks the therapies in small steps (from least fear provoking situation to most fear provoking situation), and starts achieving target from the least step.

These things are not separate from each other. Relaxation techniques go side by side with systematic desensitization. It is equally important to understand that the clinicians conduct therapy in small steps. They never try to eliminate phobia in a single jerk. There are other psychotherapies that focus on eliminating the symptoms at once by sudden exposure to fear provoking stimulus. These methods are called flooding methods, but clinicians do not recommend such methods because of the potential harm to individual.

At the start of the therapy, clinician makes a list of fear provoking situation. Clinician has no authority to decide which thing is threatening for his client. He makes this list on the recommendations of the client. Client himself verbalizes which situation is most threatening and which is least threatening for him. List of client’s fears during systematic desensitization may take the form of a hierarchy.

We will take the example of the person who fears dark places, his hierarchy may include the following steps.

1) Feels fear when think about dark place (this is the least fear arousing situation).
2) Feels fear when goes out of home and there is the possibility to confront any dark place.
3) Feels fear when passes by any dark place.
4) Feels fear when enters a dark place.
5) Feels fear when he has to stay in a dark place for at least five minutes (this is the most fear arousing situation).

When a clinician starts the therapy, he starts from the least fear provoking situation (Feels fear when think about dark place). Clinician asks the client to imagine the situation. When client imagine about the situation, he becomes anxious automatically. At this point, clinician introduces relaxation techniques through verbalization and deep breathing. Clinician asks the client to relax body parts one by one. He verbalizes to client “Now stretch your arms and then loosen them”. In this way, clinician directs to stretch and relax different body parts. He repeats the same procedure for all the steps in hierarchy. Client has to practice these steps again and again. In this way, the client becomes habitual of relaxing himself during different fear arousing situations. Finally, clinician asks client to imagine the most fear inducing situation (stay in a dark place for at least five minutes), and when client becomes anxious, he asks him to calm down himself through relaxation techniques. In this way, systematic desensitization eliminates the phobia of the individual.

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