Systemic Desensitization

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: What is systematic desensitization?

Systematic Desensitization is a type of behavior therapy used to overcome phobias and other anxiety disorders.

Psychiatrist, Joseph Wolpe, developed the method after he discovered cats could overcome their fears through gradual and systematic exposure to fear-inducing stimuli.

The process of Systematic Desensitization occurs in three steps. The first step is the identification of an anxiety inducing stimulus hierarchy—a range from least to greatest anxiety producing stimuli of a particular fear. The second step is learning relaxation or coping techniques. Once the patient has learned these skills, he or she must use them in the third step to overcome the established hierarchy of fears.

The way this works is as follows: Let’s suppose a patient is fearful of spiders. The therapist would help the patient using the three steps of systematic desensitization:

1. Establish an anxiety stimulus hierarchy.

The therapist may begin by asking the patient to list the degree of anxiety produced at various levels of exposure to a spider. For example, seeing a picture of a spider might elicit a low fear rating, compared to live spiders crawling on the individual—the highest on the fear-inducing hierarchy.

2. Learn coping mechanisms.

The therapist would work with the patient to learn appropriate coping and relaxation techniques such as meditation or deep muscle relaxation responses.

3. Connect the stimulus to the coping method.

Gradually, and very purposefully, the therapist would present the patient with increasingly unpleasant levels of the feared stimuli from lowest to highest, while utilizing the deep relaxation techniques, or other coping strategies, previously learned. The therapy might begin with a picture of a spider; imagining a spider in an adjacent room; a spider in full view, but at a distance; a spider within reach of the patient, etc. At each progressive step, the patient is desensitized to the fear through systematic gradual exposure to the stimulus while in a state of relaxation. As the fear is unlearned, anxiety gradually becomes extinguished.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected].