Desensitization is a behavior modification technique used to combat phobias and other irrational fears.
Developed by Joseph Wolpe (1915–97) in the 1950s, desensitization is a psychotherapy method designed to uncouple a learned association between anxiety and feared objects or situations. This change is made by strengthening another response, that of relaxation. Because relaxation is incompatible with anxiety, strengthening one diminishes the other. Relaxation responses are strengthened through progressive relaxation training. First developed by Edmund Jacobson (1888–1983) in the 1930s, relaxation training is used to treat anxiety of all sorts, from intense phobias to mild performance fears. Clients first tighten and then relax different muscle groups in various parts of the body, releasing their tension and focusing on their subsequent feelings of relaxation. Once clients learn how their muscles feel when they are truly relaxed, they develop the ability to reproduce this state voluntarily and in a variety of situations. In addition to progressive muscle relaxation, other useful techniques are guided imagery, biofeedback, yoga, and meditation.
Next, clients outline an anxiety hierarchy, a list of situations or stimuli ranked in order from least to most anxiety-provoking. For a person who is afraid of flying, such a list might begin with seeing a picture of an airplane, progress to driving to the airport, and end with taking an actual plane flight. With the aid of the therapist, the client works through the hierarchical list by imagining or actually experiencing each situation while in a state of relaxation. When a patient's tolerance for each specific item on the list is secure, the client moves on to the next item. Although clients face increasingly threatening situations, relaxation rather than fear should become associated with the source of their anxiety. Ideally, in the example just given, a client should have little or no response to flying. The client becomes gradually desensitized to it. Although exposure through mental imagery does produce desensitization, real-life exposure to the feared stimulus is generally considered more effective.
See also Behavior modification ; Fear ; Sensitization ; Skinner, B. F.
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