Systematic Desensitisation

A brief explanation of the therapy used to treat phobias.

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  • Created on: 27-05-12 13:29
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Systematic Desensitisation
Systematic desensitisation: The gradual association of an undesirable
behaviour with relaxation. It is often used on phobias.
Systematic desensitisation is a treatment, based on the theory of classical
conditioning, which involves a series of steps. To begin with the patient
creates a list of fears, starting with the least fear provoking to the most. This is
called the hierarchy of fears.
For example, if a person were afraid of spiders, particularly big spiders, their
hierarchy of fears would look something like this...
The patient is then subjected to their fear whilst going through various
relaxation techniques. They start with the lowest on their hierarchy of fears
and work their way up. By the end of the treatment they should associate their
phobia with relaxation and no longer with fear. This process of replacing fear
with relaxation is called reciprocal inhibition. It works because fear and
relaxation are contrasting emotions, and so cannot be felt at the same time.


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