Andrea teaches high school AP Psychology and Online Economics and has a Masters degree in Curriculum and Instruction.
If you have ever experienced panic in the face of a fear, you should get to know the ideas of Joseph Wolpe. Perhaps you are terrified of elevators or heights. Maybe the thought of getting vaccinations at the doctor's office causes your heart to race and your palms to sweat.
Joseph Wolpe developed methods to help people with anxiety problems like these. Wolpe (1915 - 1997) was a South African psychiatrist who specialized in a behavioral therapy that is highly regarded today as an effective treatment for anxiety issues.
What Are Anxiety and Panic Disorders?
People with anxiety suffer from feelings of apprehension and dread. Panic disorder is one type of anxiety disorder; the sufferer experiences panic attacks accompanied by physical components like a racing heart, shortness of breath, and sweating.
Someone with a specific phobia has the symptoms of panic and anxiety when they are in the presence of the specific object they fear. For instance, if you have arachnophobia, you have panic attacks when you are near a spider. In some cases, people with arachnophobia can't even bear to imagine a spider or see a picture of one without experiencing symptoms of panic. It is important to note that fearing spiders is not the same as having a phobia of spiders. True phobics have all the terrifying elements of a panic disorder when confronted with what they fear.
Joseph Wolpe and Exposure Therapy
Joseph Wolpe was a pioneer of exposure therapy. Exposure therapy exposes individuals to that which they fear or causes them anxiety. Through repeated exposures, sufferers gradually learn how to keep their anxiety from overwhelming them, and their panic begins to lessen. Once they begin to control their anxiety, their confidence starts to rise, and they slowly understand that they can tackle the disorder.
Wolpe perfected the art of exposure therapy and was a game changer in the field of psychology. Before Wolpe's behavioral therapy became widely known, most therapy for anxiety centered around exploring one's past experiences or unconscious drives, as made popular by Sigmund Freud's earlier psychoanalytic approach. According to Freud, we unconsciously repress feelings and drives, and that repression leads to symptoms of anxiety. Freud was known for using hypnosis, dream analysis, and free association to uncover the dark secrets of one's past.
Behaviorism and Systematic Desensitization
Wolpe was much less interested in exploring an individual's past. Instead, he focused on changing behaviors based on the principles of behaviorism. The behavioral approach examines how we learn by association, rewards and punishments, and observation. For many suffering from an anxiety-inducing phobia, new calm behaviors may be learned to replace the fear through a method Wolpe developed. Wolpe's method of exposure therapy is called systematic desensitization.
Wolpe believed an individual cannot be anxious at the same time as they are relaxed, so he aimed to get individuals to gradually relax when confronted with activities or objects that caused anxiety. Wolpe laid out three stages of systematic desensitization:
- First, the patient learns muscle relaxation techniques that can be used to reduce anxiety.
- Second, the patient makes a hierarchy of feared situations. For example, if a patient has a phobia related to spiders, he may place a scenario with a fake spider at the low end of the hierarchy and holding a tarantula at the high end of the hierarchy.
- The third stage of systematic desensitization takes the longest. While achieving a state of relaxation, the patient must imagine herself in the most mild situation on her hierarchy. While practicing muscle relaxation, she slowly works her way up the hierarchy, consciously relaxing at each level until confronted with her worst fear. This stage can take many trials over several therapy sessions.
Sometimes Wolpe would have patients move through their hierarchies using only visualization before attempting true exposures with the real object of the phobia. Wolpe's techniques were found to have recovery rates as high as 95% for patients with phobias, and his techniques are still used today.
For some patients, virtual exposures can also help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety. If you panic on airplanes, for example, you would practice systematic desensitization first in a virtual airplane chamber, allowing you to experience the sounds and sights of a fake airplane until you are ready to attempt the real exposure.
For many people seeking help with fears and phobias, Wolpe's systematic desensitization therapy can provide needed relief from overwhelming anxiety.
Once you are finished, you should be able to:
- Define anxiety and panic disorder
- Explain what specific phobias are
- Paraphrase what exposure therapy is and contrast it with the psychoanalytic approach
- Discuss Wolpe's approach to conquering phobias
- Describe the three stages of systematic desensitization therapy
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