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Systematic desensitization is a type of behavior therapy used in the field psychology to help effectively
overcome phobias and other anxiety disorders. More specifically, it is a type of Pavlovian therapy / classical
conditioning therapy developed by a South African psychiatrist, Joseph Wolpe.
To begin the process of systematic desensitization, one must first be taught relaxation skills in order to
extinguish fear and anxiety responses to specific phobias.Once the individual has been taught these
skills, he or she must use them to react towards and overcome situations in an established hierarchy of fears.
The goal of this process is that an individual will learn to cope and overcome the fear in each step of the
hierarchy, which will lead to overcoming the last step of the fear in the hierarchy.Systematic desensitization is
sometimes called graduated exposure therapy. In recent decades, systematic desensitization has been used less
as a treatment of choice for anxiety disorders.
Many therapists now use cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that often incorporate exposure hierarchies as a means of desensitizing patients to fear-based stimuli.However, therapists also incorporate relaxation techniques,
and some exclusively focus on relaxation as a means of anxiety coping. Specific phobias are one class of mental
illness often treated via systematic desensitization.
When persons experience such phobias (for example fears of heights, dogs, snakes, closed spaces, etc.), they tend to avoid the feared stimuli; this avoidance, in turn, can temporarily reduce anxiety but is not necessarily an adaptive way of coping with it.
In this regard, patients’ avoidance behaviors can become reinforced -a concept defined by the tenets of operant conditioning.
The goal of systematic desensitization thus, is to overcome avoidance by gradually exposing patients to the phobic stimulus, until that stimulus can be tolerated.
In classical and operant conditioning terms the elicitation of the fear response is extinguished to the stimulus (or class of stimuli).
Academic research into systematic desensitization has declined in recent decades, and the current focus has been
on flooding, implosion therapies, participant modeling, exposure technology, and cognitive behavioral therapy.