The behavioural approach to treating phobias

  • AO1:
  • Systematic desensitisation (SD) 
  • This is based on classical conditioning and reciprocal inhibition. The therapy aims to gradually reduce anxiety through counterconditioning: the phobia is learned so that phobic stimulus (conditioned stimulus, CS) produces fear (conditioned response, CR). CS is paired with relaxation and this becomes the new CR. Reciprocal inhibition - it isn't possible to be afraid and relaxed at the same time, so one emotion prevents the other. 
  • Formation of an anxiety heirarchy. Patient and therapist design an anxiety heirarchy - a list of fearful stimuli arranged in order from least to mst frightening. An arachnophobic (fear of spiders) might identify seeing a picture if a small spider as low on their heirarchy and holding a tarantula as the final item. 
  • The phobic individual is first taught relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and/or meditation. Patient then works through the anxiety heirarchy. At each level the phobic is exposed to the phobic stimulus in a relaxed state. This takes place over several sessions starting at the bottom of the heirarchy. Treatment is successful when the person can stay relaxed in situations high on the heirarchy. 
  • Flooding:
  • Flooding involves bombarding the phobic patient with the phobic object without a gradual build-up. An arachnophobic recieving flooding treatment may have a large spider crawl over their hand until they can relax fully (the phobic not the spider). Without the option of avoidance behaviour, the patient quickly learns that the


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