Systematic desensitization is a type of behavioral therapy used in the field of psychology to help patients successfully conquer phobias and other anxiety disorders. Pioneered by a South African psychiatrist named Joseph Wolpe, this type of therapy treats a patient by gradually exposing him to what he fears. The idea behind this therapy is that the more a patient exposes to his feared object, the more able he becomes to tackle the cause of anxiety and find out how to deal with his feelings.
This technique is also called "graduated exposure therapy". Quite understandably, patients must first be trained to calm down and manage their fear before they are actually exposed to the feared object or situation. Once the coping skills have been taught, the patient will then utilize them to respond towards the feared object and try to triumph over tough feelings including anxiety.
As you can imagine, almost all phobia patients have been deliberately trying to avoid the sources of their fears, such as spiders, dogs, snakes or situations like being in a confined space, amongst crowds or in high places. This purposeful escape, however, does not help them conquer their anxieties, and they eventually feel the need to deal with the root cause of their problems.
There are also a group of patients who have tried distraction methods to cope with their anxiety. Distraction methods, as its name may suggest, mostly involve trying addictive behaviors such as drinking alcohol, smoking, or even taking drugs. Traditional medications can be also be used to treat the phobic type of anxiety, but they actually slow down the patients' minds in order to adjust its exaggerated reaction to the stimuli.
The key in systematic desensitization is to gradually, rather than quickly, expose the patients to the phobic objects. By being slowly forced to confront what they fear, most patients are able to turn from reconciling, tolerating, to finally accepting the object. If this technique is applied too quickly or without any precaution to the patients, the result can be dangerous or even traumatic.
Along with systematic desensitization, some other treatment techniques are often used in the same time. These include relaxation methods such as breathing techniques, or reinforcing positive thoughts. Another effective technique is called cognitive reappraisal. In this technique, the patient is required to imagine what will happen when his feared object is right in front of him. After the actual exposure, the patient is asked to compare his overstated imagination against his actual reaction during the exposure. This has proven to produce an astoundingly serene effect on the patient.
Despite its sensitive nature, systematic desensitization is a very safe method for anxiety treatment when applied with professional care. Instead of deliberately avoiding the source of fear, anxiety patients now have an option to shoot straight into the root of their problems.
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