In Vivo Desensitization: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Amanda Okuley

Amanda is a Registered Nurse with a passion for knowledge and wellness.

Are you curious about how mental health professionals help people overcome phobias? This lesson explains one method of treatment called in vivo desensitization. We explore the steps involved in vivo desensitization and how they help the patient.


Most human have a few slightly irrational fears. Some people don't like wasps or get a weird feeling when they see white buckets even though they have no explanation as to why this happens. It is pretty normal to have a few of these mild phobias. However, when they become debilities, when someone feels like they cannot leave their house because there might be a wasp or a white bucket, they may need to get help. One method of overcoming a phobia is called in vivo desensitization.


In vivo desensitization means in life desensitization. In other words, people who use this method will use real life to gradually expose and desensitize themselves to their phobia. This is different from other types of therapy, such as talk therapy in which a client discusses the cause or logic behind their phobia and then attempts to work through it with conversation. In vivo desensitization is also different from other types of desensitization, such as flooding, which is when a person is exposed to extreme situations with their phobia. While in vivo desensitization is gradual, flooding is not. A person working through a wasp phobia might be asked to stand in a room with multiple wasps nests and stay there until they calm down. Of course, the situation may be more complicated if the person is allergic to wasps.

The First Step

An example of real life in vivo desensitization could be with someone who is afraid of dogs. They might have had a bad experience of dogs, or they may have no explanation at all. With in vivo desensitization, they would take steps to gradually expose themselves to large groups of doggies. First, they may simply think about a dog. If this brings them feelings of anxiety, they would think of dogs every day until they became used to it and no longer feel anxious.

Second Steps

In this example, the next step with in vivo desensitization would be expose the person to something slightly more intense than their own imaginations. This depends on the individual, but if sitting in a room with pictures of dogs on the wall induces anxiety, the client would sit in the room until their anxiety was manageable.

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