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Systematic Desensitization Therapy: All You Need To Know

Verified By Apollo Doctors July 15, 2022 3743 0
Systematic Desensitization Therapy:
Systematic Desensitization Therapy


Systematic desensitization therapy is a kind of therapy that treats anxiety, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorders, and many other behavioural issues.  Sometimes certain situations, people, or objects can trigger extreme fear or anxiety in people. This therapy helps manage the triggers using methods and tools that ensure that the person is calm and relaxed.

This blog gives a comprehensive understanding of systematic desensitization therapy, the ways it works, and its risk factors.

What is desensitization therapy?

During the 1950s, Wolpe developed systematic desensitization. It is one of the types of exposure therapy built on the principle of classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is a type of learning that makes a person learn certain things unconsciously. For example, if a person receives a salary every Friday, it makes them happy every Friday. However, when the salary day changes, the person may still be looking forward to Friday.

In systematic desensitization therapy, the therapist uses an evidence-based approach that combines relaxation techniques and gradual exposure. It gradually leads the patient to overcome their fear response to any form of phobia and substitute it with a relaxation response.

During the systematic desensitization, also called graduated exposure therapy, the trained professional gradually works their way up the patient’s levels of fear. The therapist starts from the least fearful exposure.

When does a doctor recommend systematic therapy?

The following are some of the examples where a therapist or a healthcare worker may recommend systematic desensitization therapy:

●  This therapy can treat various phobias, including arachnophobia, cynophobia, acrophobia, and claustrophobia.  The systematic desensitizing therapy treats all phobias in comparatively similar ways with a customized approach dependent on the patient’s condition.

●  The therapy can help a person overcome post-traumatic stress disorder that causes fear or anxiety due to experiencing or witnessing traumatic incidents such as accidents, natural disasters, physical assaults, and others.

When should you seek medical help?

Anxiety or fears are normal in all beings. However, a doctor may prescribe this  therapy when extreme fear of certain situations, animals, or people  adversely affects the personal and professional life of the person. Ensuring receiving immediate medical attention is crucial for recovery.

How does systematic desensitization therapy work?

There are three main steps in systematic desensitization therapy. In the first step, the therapist can teach the patient relaxation techniques. During the second step, the patient may rank their fears based on the level of intensity. And the final step is gradually exposing patients with the phobia to ensure that they reach the comfort level to manage the symptoms.

The following is a detailed explanation of each of the above mentioned three steps:

  1. Deep muscle relaxation techniques : It is the first step in therapy. In this step, the therapist teaches the patient various breathing exercises and techniques to relax muscles. Relaxation techniques use the principle of reciprocal inhibition – meaning an individual cannot be relaxed and tensed at the same time. So, one can practise these relaxation techniques giving no space for tension when a phobia is triggered. There are three types of relaxation techniques. The autogenic relaxation technique lets the patient constantly repeat words and phrases to relax the mind. During a progressive muscle relaxation technique, the patient tenses and relaxes each part of the body – starting from the toe and moving upward towards the head. The visualization technique works through imagination. The patient can imagine their favourite places, gardens, pools, or seashore to help the brain feel in a safe zone and thus relax.
  2. Fear Hierarchy : In the second stage of therapy, the therapist can encourage the patient to list their fears on a scale of intensity from levels 1 to 10. Level 10 is the most dreaded one, and level one causes the least amount of anxiety. This way, the patient can analyse  their fears.
  3. Exposure to Fears : During the third stage of therapy, the doctor assigns tasks to help the patients expose themselves to the fears starting from the less fearful ones. In-vitro and in-vivo are the two ways of exposure to fear techniques. In an in-vitro exposure, the patient imagines their fear, and therapists encourage them to face these fears. With the in-vivo exposure, the patient may face their fear in reality. There is another exposure method called virtual reality exposure therapy. This therapy puts the patient in a computer-generated environment that mimics real-life situations. This helps both the therapist and the patient work through the fears in a controlled atmosphere.

What are the limitations of systematic desensitisation therapy?

The following are some of the limitations of this therapy:

  • The effectiveness of in-vitro therapy depends upon the patient’s ability to imagine the situations, objects or people that make them anxious. If the patient is incapable to imagine properly, the method can fail.
  • The therapy puts emphasis on handling the symptoms and not the issue’s root cause(s).
  • Systematic desensitization therapy is a slow process and sometimes the absence of triggers during the sessions can provoke the patients to abandon the therapy.

How long does systematic desensitization therapy take to work?

The time taken to complete the sessions depends on the severity of the patient’s condition. In patients with severe phobia, it may take up to 12 sessions. But in certain cases, the therapist and the patient can decide upon the goals and may finish in four to six sessions.


Systematic desensitization therapy is a scientifically proven treatment method to successfully treat phobias and other anxiety disorders. Studies show the effectiveness of both real and VR exposure therapies. The patient needs to realise the issue and willingly seek help. The right approach at the right intervals can yield better results.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a patient try this therapy in the comfort of their own home?

Yes, a patient can use various systematic therapy techniques in the comfort of their homes. However, it is important to remember that these techniques take time and need patience .

What are some of the examples that point out the effectiveness of systematic desensitization therapy?

The following are some examples:

With a combination of anxiety management training and standard or virtual reality exposure treatment, the systematic desensitizing therapy was found to be successful in treating close to 93% of patients with a phobia of flying.

Prolonged exposure therapy has helped army officers and veterans successfully manage Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Who is the right candidate for this therapy?

The doctors recommend systematic desensitisation for an individual suffering from an extreme phobia, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Verified By Apollo Doctors
At Apollo, we believe that easily accessible, reliable health information can make managing health conditions an empowering experience. AskApollo Online Health Library team consists of medical experts who create curated peer-reviewed medical content that is regularly updated and is easy-to-understand.

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