Systematic Desensitization

Systematic Desensitization


Systematic Desensitization therapy created by Joseph Wolpe is used to help patients who deal with severe fears and phobias. This is based off of classical conditioning principles as a behavior modification strategy. Treatment is used to help clients relax and release muscles that tighten when they are put in a fearful environment. It’s automatic for the muscles to tighten when one is experiencing a significant amount of fear or anxiety. During therapy the client will learn how to focus on clenching and unclenching their muscles. When they have learned how to control the sensory portion of their brain which in turn controls the body, they have the tools needed to overcome a fear and recreate the feeling of relaxation. The therapist will teach the client necessary breathing techniques if the fear is also causing severe anxiety or an onset of panic.

Goals of Systematic Desensitization

The main goal of Systematic Desensitization is teaching the patient how they can force relaxation and calm down when their body normally reacts from fear or worry. It is a therapeutic intervention that will eliminate anxiety or situations that inflict fear within the patient. By reducing or getting rid of the phobia altogether, the patient avoids distress which has the potential to take over their consciousness. By creating a new response and using it consistently the client will make it habitual and retrain their mind so that it is no longer fearful within the given situation. This strategy can only be taught by a trained professional being that it is for the purpose of eliminating many extreme panic reactions and fears. The focus is to create a positive response within the patient so that they can participate in daily activities without having to deal with stress or panic.

When is Systematic Desensitization Used?

Treatment is conducted on patients who have an innate fear or phobia. Some of these fears may be the result of a conditional thought process which stems from a traumatic event in their life. Many phobias pertain to social interactions with others which is a daily issue being that it is necessary if the patient wants to create relationships. The phobias will vary but the desensitization techniques are taught to every patient through similar breathing and visualization strategies.

How Systematic Desensitization Work

The therapist will first analyze the patient and the experiences that have resulted in this fear. At times the patient may be unaware of why they have the phobia. In this case the counselor may reveal some repressed memories and emotions. Before teaching the clients techniques they will first speak to them about what they are afraid and what might have caused this innate fear.

Anxiety can result in rapid and shallow breathing coming from the chest which is called thoracic. The individual may be unaware that their body is resulting in abnormal breathing. When this happens it can get in the way of carbon dioxide and oxygen within the body. If the body does not get enough oxygen it can become tense, dizzy and increase the individual’s heart rate. They will respond to stress by sweating or experiencing a panic attack. If the client has a panic disorder the therapist is going to show them what the stress does to their muscles and why it has turned into an automatic response. The client will learn about the response and why it results in prolonged exposure to stress in the body. Therapists will display the distinction between tension and relaxation before exposing the client to techniques.

The session focuses on visualization and reaching a state of mental clarity. The patient will learn how to use this and muscle relaxation during fearful situations. At first it may be very difficult to learn how to remain in a relaxed state and frame the anxiety – which is why the counselor will begin with imaginary exposure. They will teach the patient how to use their anxiety hierarchy to break the barriers down and manage the phobia. When the patient begins to focus on the action that causes the distress and then implements the strategies that were taught to them by the counselor, it will lead to desensitization.

Criticism of Systematic Desensitization

Critics argue that Systematic Desensitization is a character generalization and that the patient's conflict cannot be determined by implementing the narrow treatment techniques. There is a concern that the therapy requires a wider basis of conditioning.


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Systematic desensitization. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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