Systematic Desensitization, A Valuable Resource Against Phobias

This type of psychological intervention is widely used to help people who suffer from phobias.

Systematic desensitization

Phobias are part of the most frequent and widespread psychological disorders among the western population, and it is estimated that they affect approximately between 10% and 15% of it.

Fortunately, psychology has developed methods and techniques that allow us to overcome these types of problems, and in fact, it is one of the psychopathological alterations that respond best to treatment.

In this article we will see what one of those forms of intervention used against phobias consists of: systematic desensitization. But, first of all, let’s see what the anxiety disorder that we have started talking about consists of.

What is a phobia?

Phobias are a group of psychological disorders belonging to the category of anxiety disorders. They are characterized because the people who develop them suffer a pattern of sudden increases in the level of anxiety when being exposed to certain situations; As a consequence, they usually try to avoid these situations before they occur, or to flee or withdraw quickly once the increase in anxiety has been generated, to stop feeling bad as soon as possible.

On the other hand, phobias are as varied as the number of situations or stimuli capable of triggering phobic reactions, and that is why there is talk of phobia of needles, phobia of driving, phobia of spiders, etc. Of course, those who develop a phobia normally only suffer from phobic anxiety reactions to a specific type of objects, living beings, places or situations. For example, the phobia of blood does not imply fear of dogs, airplanes, etc.

The main symptoms that appear in a phobic-type crisis are the following:

  • Increased heart rate

  • Sickness

  • Cold sweats

  • Tremors

  • Feeling dizzy

  • Catastrophic thoughts about what will happen

  • Digestion problems

  • You may be interested: ” Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: what is it and on what principles is it based? “

What is systematic desensitization applied to phobias?

Systematic desensitization is a form of psychological intervention that belongs to behavioral therapies and, by extension, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and is widely used especially to treat certain anxiety disorders, such as phobias.

The fundamental idea on which it is based is to help patients to face those situations that they fear because of the phobia, making them come not to eliminate the anxiety reaction, but to dominate it and make it easier to gradually fade.

To do this, what is done is to begin to expose the person to situations very similar to those that the phobic reaction generates, in a controlled environment and following the guidelines given by the psychologist, making them not give in and flee from that kind of exhibitions.

This is achieved, among other things, by following a difficulty curve, starting with not very intense experiences and then making them more and more anxious. To achieve this, one usually works with guided imagery exercises, images, and sometimes 3D virtual reality resources or real stimuli, when necessary and possible.

On the other hand, one more characteristic of systematic desensitization is that while the patient is exposed to “uncomfortable” situations that trigger at least in part a phobic reaction, it helps him to induce a state of relaxation in himself, to through various psychological techniques. In this way, the experience that used to be associated with anxiety (spiders, needles, etc.) and being associated with opposite psychological and physiological processes.

Thus, the purpose of systematic desensitization applied to phobias is to allow the person to normalize the fact of experiencing the proximity of those objects, living beings, places or situations that they have been fearing, helping them to stop giving them so much importance. It is a process of authentic emotional and totally experiential training, which cannot be replaced simply by theoretical learning about what a phobia is: normally, people know that the fear they feel in a phobia crisis is irrational, but sometimes Despite this, it limits their lives.

Are you looking for psychological support?

Thomas Saint Cecilia

If you suffer from a phobic problem or some other psychological alteration associated with anxiety or the management of emotions in general, I invite you to contact me to start a process of psychological intervention in several sessions. I am a psychologist specialized in the cognitive-behavioral approach, and I work both in person in Madrid and through the online format by video call. To see more information about how I work, as well as my contact information, go to this page.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bourne, EJ (2005). The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
  • Horse, VE (1998). Behavior Modification and Therapy Techniques Manual. Tres Cantos: XXI Century.
  • Dubord, G. (2011). Part 12. Systematic desensitization. Canadian Family Physician, 57 (11): 1299.
  • Kessler et al., (2005). Prevalence, Severity, and Comorbidity of 12-Month DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archive of General Psychiatry, Vol. 20.
  • McGlynn, F., Smitherman, T .; Gothard, K. (2004). Comment on the Status of Systematic Desensitization. Behavior Modification, 28 (2), pp: 194-205.
  • Wolpe, J. (1958). Psychotherapy by reciprocal inhibition. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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