Systematic Desensitization

Systematic desensitization is a type of behavioral therapy used in the field of psychology to help effectively overcome phobias and other anxiety disorders. More specifically, it is a type of Pavlovian therapy / classical conditioning therapy developed by a South African psychiatrist, Joseph Wolpe. To begin the process of systematic desensitization, one must first be taught relaxation skills in order to control fear and anxiety responses to specific phobias. Once the individual has been taught these skills, he or she must use them to react towards and overcome situations in an established hierarchy of fears. The goal of this process is that an individual will learn to cope and overcome the fear in each step of the hierarchy, which will lead to overcoming the last step of the fear in the hierarchy. Systematic desensitization is sometimes called graduated exposure therapy.

Specific phobias are one class of mental illness often treated through the behavior therapy or cognitive-behavioral process of systematic desensitization. When individuals possess irrational fears of an object, such as height, dogs, snakes, and close spaces, they tend to avoid it. Since escaping from the phobic object reduces their anxiety, patients’ behavior to reduce fear is reinforced through negative reinforcement, a concept defined in operant conditioning. The goal of Systematic Desensitization is to overcome this avoidance pattern by gradually exposing patients to the phobic object until it can be tolerated. This will be challenging for the patient at first to deal with the fear, but gradually, most will overcome this fear. In classical and operant conditioning terms the elicitation of the fear response is extinguished to the stimulus (or class of stimuli).