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Systematic desensitization is a behavioral technique commonly used to treat fear, anxiety disorders and phobias. Using this method, the person is engaged in some type of relaxation exercise and gradually exposed to an anxiety-producing stimulus, like an object or place.

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.

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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).

Once the hierarchy has been developed and the client has learned all of the relaxation techniques, the clinician would help him associate the two. He might ask the client to get into a relaxed state and then imagine the first level of the hierarchy – the toy plane. Once the person is able to imagine that first level and stay relaxed, he would move onto the next level, and so on.

The ultimate goal would be to reach the highest level while remaining relaxed so that flying in a plane would be possible.Systematic desensitization has been shown to be effective in the treatment of numerous anxiety disorders and phobias and can be used with both children and adults.

Lesson Summary

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.Systematic desensitization has two steps that could be applied to a fear of flying in order to help reduce the anxiety involved. Relaxation techniques are very similar to meditation, and there are scripts with exact wording that can be followed.

A hierarchy of fears is a list of the things that the person identifies as fearful.

Learning Outcomes

Assess your ability to achieve these objectives when you’ve watched the video lesson:

  • Determine the purpose of systematic desensitization
  • Highlight the process of relaxation training
  • List the two steps of systematic desensitization using the fear of flying as an example

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