What Is Habituation In Psychology, And What Does It Signify?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The concept of habituation is similar to the concept of adaptation. In other words, a description of the behavioral characteristic of becoming accustomed to stimuli over time—to the point of experiencing less intense emotional and behavioral responses to them.

The duration, frequency, intensity, and changes to the stimulus in question can affect the process of habituation. Habituation can be used in exposure therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), often when treating anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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What is habituation?

Habituation is a term describing how people tend to form habits over time. For many, adapting to change is best done gradually.

Transitioning into a new state of being can often feel safer than being thrown into a challenge without preparation. However, when habits must form quickly, habituation can be used to decrease emotional reactions over time via exposure or cognitive restructuring.

Habituation can also be compared to growing tolerant to a safe substance like caffeine. Over time, someone might develop the habit of drinking coffee each day. While the caffeine may impact them during the first few months of drinking coffee, they may stop feeling the physical symptoms afterward. Habituation works similarly, but with emotions and thoughts.

What influences habituation?

2009 study by Abrams T. and other researchers redefined habituation based on its influencing factors. Multiple factors can influence habituation, including the following. 

Duration 

The amount of time someone is presented with a stimulus can impact habituation. When you are exposed to a stimulus over the long term, you may be more likely to become habituated to it—similar called associative learning, where you learn to associate a stimulus with an outcome. Except here, knowing the outcome allows you to ignore it.

For instance, a loud, sudden noise, like a dog bark, may not be presented long enough for habituation to occur. This phenomenon — when stimulation occurs, but the response remains as strong as the first exposure — is often called spontaneous recovery. You may not get used to the sound of a dog barking because the barks are so short and infrequent that your brain may not have time to habituate to the exposure. 

Conversely, if you are exposed to the new sound of a train each night when you move to a new apartment near the train tracks, you might respond negatively at first but eventually associate the train's sound with sleep or calm. That’s an example of habituation caused by the duration of the sound and its frequency. 

Frequency 

The more you are exposed to a stimulus, the quicker you may become habituated to it. For example, when you walk by a rose bush for the first time, the smell might be strong. However, the smell might lose some of its pungency if you walk by the same bush multiple times throughout the day. You may no longer smell the roses as strongly as someone who only walks by the bush once a month. In addition, if you wear the same perfume each day, you might become habituated to the scent, whereas someone else may smell it strongly as you walk by. 

Intensity 

Very intense stimuli may be more challenging to habituate yourself to. For certain stimuli, like a car alarm, habituation may never occur. As car alarms are often designed to be loud, jarring, and intense, and because the stimulus is presented irregularly, it can be more difficult to habituate to. Intense stimuli tend to lead to slower habituation or no habituation at all. 

Change 

Changes in stimuli can make it harder to habituate. For example, if a sound continually gets louder and then softer, the initial response may continue, as there is uncertainty in the experience. You might experience faster habituation if you hear the same sound at a constant volume.

When an expected stimulus suddenly changes, it can help you to overcome habituation or reverse habituation. Here are a couple of examples: say your car is making a rattling noise when you drive. After repeated presentations of the noise, you might stop noticing it — but when the noise suddenly escalates or gets louder, you might notice the issue again and realize you should get the car fixed. Similarly, in a difficult relationship, you may pay less attention to each argument until the fighting escalates and becomes more intense, at which point, you may realize it’s time to seek help. 

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When does habituation occur?

Habituation can occur in everyday life unconsciously, or it can be consciously achieved through methods like mental health therapy. 

The major characteristic of habituation is a decrease in response to a stimulus, or sensory adaptation to its presence, like sounds, smells, or visual stimuli. For example, you might habituate to a painting on the wall that you love that stands out less over time, a candle that smells less the longer you sit in the room where it's lit, or the conversational noise in a restaurant that sounds loud when you first walk in but bothers you less as you sit through your meal.

A habituation stimulus can also occur in areas beyond outward senses. For example, habituation may occur when someone gets a raise at work. When this person hears they're getting a raise, they might feel extremely excited, thinking their life will change significantly. They may believe that their happiness will continue to be as strong throughout the years. 

However, excitement or happiness over a short-term change may feel amazing for some time but start to become someone's "new normal." Life may return to how it was before the promotion, and the individual may adapt (or habituate) to the new salary. The stimuli, in this case, the salary, had less effect on the person's happiness over time than they initially expected.

These habituation examples show how individuals can overestimate or underestimate their emotional responses to future stimuli. In some instances, habituation involves positive change. For example, your sadness may seem to last forever after a breakup or challenging loss. But over time being without a person can become more routine and easier to cope with. Learning habituation can be a positive phenomenon when it lessens the emotional burden of a situation.

The phenomenon of overestimating a situation's effect on you in the future is called a focusing illusion. It may occur when you focus on specific details of a situation without considering what other fixations can be possible in the future. For example, you might feel you can't live without someone but meet someone you love after you break up and realize that other options are possible for you. 

Habituation psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is often considered the "gold standard" of psychotherapy. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, eating disorders, phobias, and substance use disorders. CBT can be highly effective and may be performed through various channels, including individual sessions, group therapy, or online counseling.  

This type of therapy focuses on the relationship between one's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, intending to change unwanted thoughts and behaviors. The guiding philosophy of CBT posits that thoughts influence feelings, which in turn influence behavior. In CBT, to change your behavior, you may be asked to change your thoughts and beliefs. 

Exposure therapy and habituation in CBT  

Another method sometimes utilized as a part of a CBT treatment is exposure and response therapy (ERP). Exposure therapy was designed to target fear, anxiety, and compulsions. The general idea behind exposure therapy is that avoiding fear can worsen it. Hence, an exposure therapist helps clients expose themselves to their fears to reduce the client’s responsiveness to them. Over time, repeated exposure can make the situation, object, or activity that the person fears less scary, so they can begin the process of overcoming their fears and shift from avoidant behaviors to acceptance. 

Research shows that exposure therapy can effectively treat specific phobias, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Exposure therapy is believed to be effective because it can support clients in accepting new, more realistic beliefs about their fears. It can also build confidence and self-efficacy when the person realizes that they can face their fears and ultimately control their anxiety.

Exposure therapy can also function by invoking habituation. Habituation can lessen stimuli's impact on a client's memory or emotions. Habituation occurs when someone is repeatedly exposed to the object of their fear without avoidance. For example, suppose someone is afraid of socializing and makes an effort to expose themselves to frequent socialization, rejection, and conversation. They may start to feel more comfortable and familiar with their social skills.

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Counseling options 

When adapting to a change, even if it's positive, it can be beneficial to have outside support. An in-person or online therapist can help. They may guide you through your thoughts and feelings surrounding responses to the stimulus in your life that is causing you stress. Learning how to manage these responses can help you reduce and overcome them.

If finding time for therapy prevents you from finding the support you seek, you might want to consider online therapy, which can save you time by eliminating the need to commute and sit in a waiting room. Similarly, if you find it challenging to adjust to change, attending an online therapy session from your living room may be more comfortable than visiting an unfamiliar therapist's office.

One study looked at the efficacy of online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which can involve habituation, and found it could be highly effective. Many of the participants in the study were living with panic disorder and PTSD and experienced improved mental health after completing therapy. If you're interested in trying exposure therapy, CBT, or another form of therapy online, consider signing up with an online platform like BetterHelp to get matched with one of over 30,000 licensed and experienced therapists. 

Takeaway

Habituation can be viewed as how humans adjust to stimuli. Over time, human reactions to changes in the environment tend to decrease. The stimulus’ intensity, duration, frequency, and any changes can affect the habituation process.   

CBT and exposure therapy sometimes use habituation as a tool to treat PTSD and different types of anxiety disorders. If you're interested in using habituation to your advantage in this way, you may consider trying online therapy with the help of a mental health professional.

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