Systematic Desensitization: Therapy For Phobias

By Samantha Dewitt

Updated May 23, 2019

Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Fears are a perfectly normal part of life, but when they start to become overwhelming or to interfere with your daily life, they may be indications of a more serious issue. Specific fears may indicate a phobia. There are treatments available for all types of phobias.

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What Is Phobia?

A phobia is defined as an irrational fear or an aversion to something, and it could refer to anything. You could be afraid of insects or afraid of death, afraid of a number or afraid of natural disasters. Some fears are more widely accepted and some that are less known, but the thing about phobias is that whatever you're experiencing is interfering with your life and in some way causing you harm.

In general, there are three different types of phobias that someone could have.

Specific - These are things that have a very specific trigger, such as seeing a spider, or the color blue.

Social - Being afraid of public humiliation or judgement or even social gatherings is considered a social phobia or social anxiety.

Agoraphobia - This is a fear of being in a place that you can't escape from. Some of the symptoms might include a fear of enclosed spaces, but this is not the only aspect of this fear.

People with any of these types of phobias may experience uncontrollable anxiety when they're faced with their fear. They may do everything that they can to avoid what it is that they fear at all times in their life. They may not even be able to function or react when they are faced with whatever it is they fear. In general, these individuals can fully admit that their fear is completely irrational or exaggerated, but they still can't stop the feelings.

Panic, anxiety, fast heartbeat, staggered breathing, hot flushes, trembling, dry mouth and a whole lot more are all symptoms that might occur when faced with fear. Nausea, dizziness, headache and chest pains are also possible as are full blown panic or anxiety attacks. All of these things can result in a very strong interference in the individual's life.

What Is Systematic Desensitization?

Systematic desensitization is about exposing the individual to whatever it is that they are afraid of. At the same time, however, there is a relaxation exercise used or the individual is engaged in some type of activity that causes them to relax. These two things combined help the individual to stop associating whatever they are afraid of with fear.

The process is quite extensive, especially when the fear is more intense or has been going on for a very long time. Systematic desensitization is a process that starts slowly and is facilitated by a therapist trained in this sort of therapy.

Laying It Out

The therapist will generally start by teaching relaxation techniques to the client that they can use when faced with a fearful situation, or at any time. Meditation may be taught and practiced as well. Learning to relax the muscles and breath is helpful with breaking the link between the feared thing and the reaction the mind and body have to it.

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Once relaxation techniques are learned, the therapist may help the client discuss their fears in detail. This may involve listing out phobias and things related to them. A fear indicting thing is listed and with it, specific aspects that induce fear in that situation or with that object are listed to create a hierarchy of fears.

For someone afraid of dogs, the first and least fear-inducing aspect may be looking at a picture of a dog. Seeing a dog on a TV show or in a movie may be next and that may progress to being outside a fence where there are dogs, followed by being in the same yard as a dog, and then actually petting the dog. Each of these things builds a little on the step before it and brings the individual closer to the initial fear, being very close to a dog.

It's the job of the therapist to help encourage them and to push them to reach slighlty beyond their comfort zone but pushing them too far and too fast could backfire in trying to overcome the phobia. This is why the relaxation techniques are learned and why the therapist will encourage their use, throughout the process. Learning to relax while looking at a picture of a dog would be part of that first step, then learning to relax while watching that dog on the TV and so on.

Why You Need It

You may wonder why you even need this type of treatment, or you may wonder what's so bad about having a phobia. Everyone is afraid of something, right? That's true, but most people have what are considered fears, rather than phobias. That means the fear doesn't interfere dramatically with their everyday life. A fear of spiders means the individual does not like them and doesn't want to be around them, but if they see a spider, they can react more rationally.

Someone with a phobia does not have a rational response when exposed to their fear. They may take extreme steps to avoiding even the potential for exposure to spiders by insisting their clothing is stored in vacuum bags or is just fresh from the washer or dryer prior to putting it on. They may require their home to be sprayed for insects many times more than is necessary.

Overcoming a phobia can be extremely important to your life because it lets you do the things that you enjoy without having to plan around that fear. Someone with a phobia of dogs, for instance, must plan their entire life around trying to avoid dogs. It can greatly influence the things that you want to do, like taking your children to the park or visiting certain family members. Overcoming that phobia allows you to live the life you want to live.

Online Therapy

If you find yourself struggling with a phobia and you're not sure what to do, the first thing is to reach out for professional help. You can find a therapist who is ready and willing to help you. You just have to know where to look. Searching online will help you find therapists in your area, and if traveling to an office isn't something you want to do, you can find therapists who practice online.

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BetterHelp is a great option for professional mental health help online. BetterHelp has a team of licensed professional therapists who can connect with you via text, phone, and video to help you address any issue you may be having.


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