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Systematic desensitisation is used to treat maladaptive or dysfunctional behaviours, most commonly
phobias, as the behaviourist approach claims that if these behaviours are learnt through operant and
classical conditioning then they can be cured using the same processes.
How it works...
There are 4 main steps to systematic desensitisation for overcoming phobias:
Step 1 Relaxation
Systematic Desensitisation usually begins with the therapist teaching the individual ways in which to
relax, that are most comfortable for that individual, typically using muscle relaxation techniques.
Step 2 Creating the Anxiety-Provoking Situations Hierarchy
The individual would then be asked to imagine a graded series of anxiety provoking situations,
starting with those that cause the least anxiety and progressing to those that cause the most anxiety.
In order to do this, the individual would think of around 15-20 situations that could evoke anxiety
relating to the situation or object they fear. For example, a person with a fear of flying might include
`packing luggage', `waiting in the ticket line', `boarding the plane', or even `turbulence'. They would
then order these situations on a scale of 1-100 on the level of anxiety they cause (1 being no anxiety,
100 being very high anxiety).
Step 3 Reciprocal Inhibition
This concept states that two incompatible emotional states can't exist at the same time, therefore
anxiety and relaxation can't exist together. Relaxation techniques are practiced during the
procedure, and first relaxation is associated with the least anxiety-provoking situation. When the
individual feels completely relaxed about these situations, they will move to the next level of the
hierarchy, and repeat the relaxation procedures, continuing this so that the hierarchy is systematically
Once the individual is able to go through the whole hierarchy of situations feeling completely
relaxed, they would be completely treated.
Step 4 In Vivo and In Vitro
The next procedure can be carried out in real life (in vivo) or through imagined situations (in vitro).
The individual would have to place themselves in progressively more anxiety-provoking real life
situations between therapy sessions to help them overcome their fear.
In 1924, Mary Cover Jones worked with a young boy who had a fear of rabbits. She would
feed the boy, while a rabbit was in the room, several feet away from the boy. The rabbit was
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Eventually, the fear associated with the rabbit was replaced with the
positive feelings associated with eating, and the boy's fear was overcome.
Emmelkamp, 1994 Evidence exists to show that the ability to tolerate imagined situations
is followed b a reduction in anxiety in real-life situations.
The procedure depends upon the individual's ability to vididly imagine the feared situations
or objects. Evidence suggests that in vivo procedures (real life) are more effective and long
lasting that imagined ones or techniques using imagery.…read more