Behavioural Treatments for Phobias


Systematic Desensitisation (SD)

  • Wolpe developed the SD technique for the treatment of phobias of specific objects e.g. snakes, enclosed spaces.
  • Based on the basis that what has been learned (conditioned) can be unlearned.
  • Based on classical conditioning. Idea is to replace the anxiety/ fear with feelings of relaxation.
  • New response to a phobic stimulus is learned (Phobic stimulus is paired with relaxation instead of anxiety). This is called counter conditioning. 
  • Impossible to be afraif and relaxed at the same time, so one emotion prevents the other. This is called reciprocal inhibition. 

Three main processes are involved in SD:


Techniques are taught to the patient these include:

  • Focussing on breathing and taking slow, deep breaths as when we are anxious we breathe quickly so slowing this down helps us to relax. [7/11]
  • Being mindful of the 'hear and now' [mindfullness]
  • Focussing on a particular object or visualising a peaceful scene.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation is also used where one muscle at a time is relaxed.


  • At the beginning of therapy, the therapist and the patient create a hierarchy from most to least fearful stimuli. 

Gradual Exposure

  • SD works by gradually exposing the patient to fearful situations one step at a time. At each stage the client practices relaxation so the situation becomes mroe familar and their anxiety reduces.
  • Treatment is successful when the patient can remained relaxed in situations high on the hierarchy.

Step 1: Relaxation techniques are taught.

Step 2: Construct a hierarchy of fear.

Step 3: Start at the bottom of the hierarchy. Practice relaxation techniques. 

Step 4: Move up the hierarchy.

Step 5: Eventually the fear of phobia is replaced


No comments have yet been made