What Is Systematic Desensitization? Does It Work?

Updated October 1, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Fears are a normal part of life, but when they start to overwhelm or interfere with your life, they may be indicating something more serious. Specific fears may indicate a phobia, such as a fear of flying. There are treatments available for all types of phobias, including systematic desensitization and virtual reality exposure therapy. Here’s a look at systematic desensitization, which is an evidence-based therapy in simple psychology, and what it entails.

There Are Three Different Types Of Phobias

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 are less known, but the thing about phobias is that whatever you're experiencing is interfering with your life and could be, in some way, causing you harm. When left untreated, a phobia could lead to anxiety disorders or other mental disorders. This is why you should seek out advice, diagnosis, or treatment for a phobia when you can.

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, having test anxiety, or seeing 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 might 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 or experience muscle relaxation when thinking about their fears, without the proper treatment. When this is the case, it may be apparent that behavior therapy may offer the support you need.

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 and anxiety. Nausea, dizziness, headache, muscle tension, 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. If you experience these feelings, you may be able to benefit from deep relaxation, which may need to be taught to you by a therapist.

What Is This Form Of Desensitization?

Systematic desensitization is a treatment held in three phases that 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 and practice deep breathing. These two things combined help the individual to stop associating whatever they are afraid of with fear, and eventually these fears may help them elicit a relaxation response.

The process is quite extensive, especially when the fear is more intense or has been going on for a very long time. There may be a medical advice diagnosis that leads a patient here, such as a diagnosis of anxiety or OCD. Systematic desensitization is a process that starts slowly, where treatment will begin exposing a patient to things that cause them the least anxiety, until they are exposed to situations that cause them more and more anxiety. Systematic desensitization is facilitated by a therapist trained in this sort of exposure 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 muscle relaxation and breathing exercises can be helpful with breaking the link between the feared thing and the reaction and negative health perceptions the mind and body have to it.

Once muscle relaxation techniques are learned, the therapist may help the client discuss their fears and anxiety in detail. This might involve listing out phobias, including a fear hierarchy or anxiety hierarchy, and things related to them. For instance, a fear inducing 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. Keep in mind that systematic desensitization is effective when it comes to helping individuals overcome phobias, of many different types.

It's the job of the therapist to help encourage a patient and push them to reach slightly 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 exposure therapy 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.One way to do this is through virtual reality exposure.

When you are able to experience relaxation when being exposed to something that you are afraid of, the process of reciprocal inhibition is being utilized.

Why You Need It

You may wonder why you even need this type of treatment or therapy, 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. Phobias generally involve the most anxiety provoking situation an individual can imagine.

Someone with a phobia does not have a rational response when exposed to their fear. They may take extreme steps to avoid 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. In other words, a phobia may impact a person’s life greatly, which is why behavior therapy may be vital. Therapy can be helpful in terms of getting advice diagnosis or treatment for your phobia. Virtual reality exposure techniques are now being utilized as well, which is a method that has been featured in more than one controlled study concerning clinical psychology.

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. Overcoming that phobia allows you to live the life you want to live. This is why you should consider treatment when you are experiencing a phobia.

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. A study from 2011 in the Can Fam Physician, which is just one of the peer reviewed studies that are relevant to this topic, discusses how systematic desensitization can be used to treat phobias, post traumatic stress disorder, panic disorders, and anxiety.

When you want to find out more about exposure therapy, 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.

There Are Three Different Types Of Phobias

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.

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 in-app messaging, phone, and video to help you address any issue you may be having.

Commonly Asked Questions On This Topic Found Below:

What is an example of systematic desensitization?

An example of systematic desensitization is when someone has a severe phobia, and they are asked to expose themselves to the phobia a little bit at a time until they don’t see the same fear or anxiety when they think about this type of situation.

They are also taught muscle relaxation techniques, which should be employed when they are feeling anxiety. With the proper treatment, they may not feel anxious when they are around the item or activity that makes them afraid, so it will interfere less in their lives. For instance, if a person has a fear of flying, they may be asked to think about flying, then sit in an airplane, and eventually ride on an airplane.

This type of phobic stimulus is the same practice that is done in the exposure response therapy technique, which targets the same symptoms through creating a slow relaxation response over time. Research shows that the more anxious you feel, the higher the possibility that you’ll be able to cut off your original behavior and lower levels of anxiety in the future when exposed to the stimuli again.

Another example is college students with a fear of public speaking. The more the client practices an anxiety hierarchy desensitization, the less scary the actual event is. Showing the patient that the act of public speaking has a lower severity than they imagine is a great way to help them feel comfortable. They become desensitized over time because the tension starts to drop off through the counter-conditioning process. Through the technique learned in their sessions, they create a new reality and new fear hierarchy that no longer takes over their life. Plus, they learn a popular psychiatry technique that allows them to have better control over their emotions in the future, limiting the possibility of depression or panic attacks. Their new association with public speaking creates more and more confidence over time.

What is systematic desensitization and how does it work?

With systematic desensitization, or systematic desensitization, a patient will be exposed to their fear or an object or situation that is anxiety provoking. They will have gradual exposure to the phobic stimulus, until they are more comfortable, and the situation doesn’t cause a fear response. With this treatment, a patient will also learn relaxation techniques, which are designed to help them process how they are feeling and allow them to be able to relax more effectively when they think of the issue they are afraid of. It can be effective for panic disorders, post traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions. If you are interested in getting treatment for your fears, you may want to learn more about virtual reality exposure.

 Moreover, it can teach you counter conditioning, which is changing a behavior from something not ideal to something that is more favorable. Instead of being afraid, you will be able to relax around your fears.

What happens during systematic desensitization?

During the process of systematic desensitization therapy, an individual is taught aspects of muscle relaxation. In other words, they learn different ways to be able to limit fear and anxiety. Then they are asked to make a fear hierarchy, so their therapist will know what issues need to be covered. After that, exposure to the object or scenarios takes place, in small increments, until the fears aren’t as powerful as they were before, and a patient is able to lessen their anxiety in the present moment. Extensive research has been done on this type of exposure therapy, which may also be utilized through virtual reality exposure therapy, using special VR equipment.

What is the basic goal of systematic desensitization?

With successful treatment, the goal of systematic desensitization is to help individuals overcome their fears or phobias and instead remain calm when they are exposed to these situations. When a patient is getting treatment for anxiety or a phobia that is affecting them negatively, their routine, and life, this is something that must change. The hope is that there will be a counter-conditioning process that takes place, which changes the behavior of the person concerning their fears. They may be able to take advantage of deep relaxation techniques instead of having to feel anxious.

This type of treatment is also known as graduated exposure therapy, which can be adapted using virtual reality exposure therapy, and is thought to be a type of classical conditioning. Something else that you may be interested in knowing about this technique is that it focuses on something called reciprocal inhibition, which means that when muscles are stimulated, they can’t relax at the same time. This is related to counter conditioning as well.

This process is utilized in systematic desensitization therapy by teaching the patient how to be in a relaxed state first before they are exposed to their fears and experience anxiety.

Keep in mind that even though you may feel like you could perform exposure therapy on yourself, it is better to take advantage of therapy and the professional medical advice of a therapist. They have the expertise it takes to develop a treatment strategy just for you, which can teach you progressive muscle relaxation and allow you to get over your fears.

What three steps are involved in the use of systematic desensitization?

When it comes to how systematic desensitization works, the three steps that take place are learning muscle relaxation techniques, determining what you are most afraid of and how afraid you are of these things, and finally, the exposure exercise portion, where you will be exposed to your phobia. It may also be effective as virtual reality exposure therapy, especially if it is part of ptsd treatment.

What are the three steps involved in systematic desensitization?

The three steps of systematic desensitization involve learning relaxation skills, which may include deep muscle relaxation and breathing slowly, making a list of what you are afraid of and the fear hierarchy of these things, and then becoming gradually exposed to the things that you are afraid of. Systematic desensitization therapy uses the principle of reciprocal inhibition, which means that muscles that are relaxed can’t also be tense. This is why a patient is taught principles of muscle relaxation before they are asked to expose themselves to situations that they are fearful of.

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