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Systematic Desensitization

Christine Liddell, Alyssa Gilston, Nicola Taccone
  • Author
    Christine Liddell

    Christine Liddell graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Mining Engineering. She has tutored English and History, as well as STEM classes, such as Statics, Calculus, and Thermodynamics.

  • Instructor
    Alyssa Gilston

    Alyssa holds a B.A. in Psychology, M.A. in Clinical Counseling, M.A. in Clinical Psychology, and Doctor of Psychology degree. She has extensive research and teaching experience, with over 8 years of college level instruction.

  • Expert Contributor
    Nicola Taccone

    Honours Bachelor of Physical and Health Education with a minor in English, Bachelor of Education, and Master's degree in Professional Kinesiology.

Learn about systematic desensitization. Understand how systematic desensitization works. Gain insight into systematic desensitization therapy through various examples. Updated: 12/09/2021

Systematic Desensitization

What is systematic desensitization? The systematic desensitization definition is a behavioral technique that involves gradually exposing someone to an anxiety-producing object, thought, or experience whilst simultaneously performing relaxation techniques to reduce the symptoms of anxiety. Systematic desensitization is effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders only. Desensitization is the process of causing someone to experience something, usually an emotion or a pain, less strongly than before. Systematic desensitization was developed by South African psychologist Joseph Wolpe in the 1950s.

Definition of Systematic Desensitization

Systematic desensitization is a behavioral technique whereby a person is gradually exposed to an anxiety-producing object, event, or place while being engaged in some type of relaxation at the same time in order to reduce the symptoms of anxiety.

For example, a very common phobia is the fear of flying. Some people become very anxious when travel involves a plane, while others may become extremely fearful at the thought of flying and refuse to go anywhere near a plane. Systematic desensitization has two steps that could be applied to a fear of flying in order to help reduce the anxiety involved.

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Systematic Desensitization Example

The fear of flying, known as aviophobia or aerophobia is the first example of a real-life case of an active-duty United States Marine helicopter crew chief who was successfully treated using systematic desensitization. After practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and muscle relaxing, the pilot started visualizing images associated with flying, which provoked his anxiety. The patient and therapist then created a list of 32 items associated with flying, ordered from least to most anxiety-producing. The first on the list as the least anxiety-producing thought the helicopter pilot managed to overcome was the thought of ordering parts to repair a helicopter. After the patient was able to stay calm while examining one item on the list, he was allowed to move on, working through all 32 items. The final, and most anxiety-provoking image, was of landing the helicopter. The patient was able to work through his number one fear and was eventually so successful, he initiated an actual helicopter flight. Using the relaxation techniques he learned with the behavioral therapist, the patient was also able to complete a six-month follow-up flight with his therapist aboard.

A helicopter pilot successfully faced his fear of flying using systematic desensitization therapy.

Helicopter

Another example of systematic desensitization would be helping a patient face their fear of heights. After identifying the fear and learning to relax using techniques similar to meditation, the client could then begin working through their hierarchy of fears. The least anxiety-provoking fear on the list would be addressed first, and could simply entail imaging a tall building. If the patient were able to stay calm while completing the visualization exercise, they could move on to the next fears on the list. Somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy of fears, a step might include having the patient attempt to climb a ladder. If the patient successfully faced that anxious thought, they would then move on to their ultimate fear, for example, to stand on top of a skyscraper and look down. Once completing the entire hierarchy of fears, from visualizing heights to standing on a ladder, the person could tackle their last, biggest fear. If the person were able to stand atop a skyscraper, they would have been considered successful in completing their systematic desensitization therapy after remaining calm in the face of their fears and anxieties.

Systematic Desensitization Steps

The three systematic desensitization steps include identifying a fear, relaxation techniques, and completing a hierarchy of fears.

  1. Identifying a fear: The first systematic desensitization step is to identify what is causing the anxiety problems and deal with each phobia separately.
  2. Relaxation Techniques: Once the anxiety or phobia is identified, the second desensitization step involves a behavioral therapist teaching the client relaxation techniques, such as those performed in meditation. The client will be instructed to sit in a comfortable position and relax their muscles. The client will be instructed to focus on breathing while the therapist reads from a script that encourages the client to relax every muscle, from head to toe. The second step of desensitization aims to relax the client psychically.
  3. Hierarchy of Fears: The third desensitization step is to complete a hierarchy of fears, a list of concepts described in the order of least anxiety-provoking, to most anxiety-provoking. As each fear on the hierarchy is being discussed, the client should be performing their relaxation techniques. Although relaxation becomes harder as the hierarchy increases, the goal is to associate the hierarchy of fears with relaxation at every level. The goal of the third step is to relax the mind along with the body and to associate the hierarchy of fears with relaxation.

Relaxation Training

First, a clinician or behavioral therapist would train the client with the fear of flying in relaxation techniques. This is very similar to meditation, and there are scripts with exact wording that can be followed. The therapist could begin by asking the client to close his eyes, sit in a comfortable position, and relax all muscles while paying close attention to breathing slowly and naturally. The therapist will read through the script and encourage the client to relax each muscle in his body from his head to his toes. The goal is to get the client into a completely relaxed physical state.

Hierarchy of Fears

The next step in the systematic desensitization process involves constructing what is called a hierarchy of fears, which is a list of the things that the person identifies as fearful related to flying in order from the least to the most anxiety-provoking. The list could look something like this:

  1. Looking at a toy plane (least).
  2. Hearing or watching a plane fly in the sky.
  3. Going to an airport.
  4. Walking onto a plane.
  5. Taking off and flying in the air (most).

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Video Transcript

Definition of Systematic Desensitization

Systematic desensitization is a behavioral technique whereby a person is gradually exposed to an anxiety-producing object, event, or place while being engaged in some type of relaxation at the same time in order to reduce the symptoms of anxiety.

For example, a very common phobia is the fear of flying. Some people become very anxious when travel involves a plane, while others may become extremely fearful at the thought of flying and refuse to go anywhere near a plane. Systematic desensitization has two steps that could be applied to a fear of flying in order to help reduce the anxiety involved.

Relaxation Training

First, a clinician or behavioral therapist would train the client with the fear of flying in relaxation techniques. This is very similar to meditation, and there are scripts with exact wording that can be followed. The therapist could begin by asking the client to close his eyes, sit in a comfortable position, and relax all muscles while paying close attention to breathing slowly and naturally. The therapist will read through the script and encourage the client to relax each muscle in his body from his head to his toes. The goal is to get the client into a completely relaxed physical state.

Hierarchy of Fears

The next step in the systematic desensitization process involves constructing what is called a hierarchy of fears, which is a list of the things that the person identifies as fearful related to flying in order from the least to the most anxiety-provoking. The list could look something like this:

  1. Looking at a toy plane (least).
  2. Hearing or watching a plane fly in the sky.
  3. Going to an airport.
  4. Walking onto a plane.
  5. Taking off and flying in the air (most).

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Systematic Desensitization


Create Your Own Systematic Desensitization Approach

The lesson discussed applying systematic desensitization to a fear of flying. Several other scenarios induce fear in many individuals, some examples include: going to see a doctor, or being in a crowded place. Consider other scenarios that may be fear-inducing to some individuals, or perhaps there is something specific that you or someone you know is fearful of. Once you have selected the fear-inducing scenario, complete the following.

  1. In a written format, describe the fear-inducing scenario.
  2. Outline how you would use systematic desensitization to help someone with this specific fear become more comfortable in this fear-inducing situation.

Example

Below is an example of a systematic desensitization approach that may be created for someone fearful of being in crowded public spaces.

  1. Use meditation techniques to help the individual enter a relaxed state. There are a variety of meditation apps that contain guided meditations. These can be used by the individual to learn how to enter into a relaxed state.
  2. Have the individual write down all of their fears related to crowded public spaces. Once they have written everything down, have them number each fear in a hierarchy of least fearful to most fearful. The number 1 will represent the least fearful.
  3. Starting with the first item (least fearful) on the hierarchy list, help expose the individual to this first level of fear while remaining in a relaxed state. For example, the first level of fear for someone fearful of crowded public spaces may be seeing a crowded public space on a television show. While using the meditation techniques learned, expose the individual to TV scenes of crowded public spaces. This exercise may need to be completed several times before the individual can view the scene and remain relaxed.
  4. Once the individual has successfully achieved being exposed to the first level of fear while remaining in a relaxed state, repeat the same process for each item listed on the hierarchy of fears.

How many stages are there in systematic desensitisation?

There are three stages in systematic desensitization. The first step is to identify what is causing the fear or phobia. The second step is to learn relaxation techniques, so the client is in a completely relaxed physical state. The third step is to develop a hierarchy of fears. The goal is to associate the hierarchy with relaxation.

What is systematic desensitization in psychology?

Systematic desensitization is a behavioral technique where a person is gradually exposed to an anxiety-producing thought or object while performing relaxation techniques simultaneously to reduce anxiety symptoms. There are three steps to systematic desensitization.

What therapy uses systematic desensitization?

Systematic desensitization therapy uses systematic sensitization. The goal is for a person to remain completely relaxed even in the face of an anxiety-provoking thought or experience. This therapy treats anxiety disorders.

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