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Systematic Desensitization

The old saying goes, “You can do anything you want, if you put your mind to it,” and that really is the basis of a psychotherapy technique called Systematic Desensitization which is used to help people overcome the fears that are inherent in anxiety, and phobias.

Systematic desensitization utilizes the natural power of the mind to “unlearn” the things that trigger the fears that make daily life for millions with anxiety disorders sometimes excruciatingly unbearable. But the technique is not some mumbo-jumbo from science fiction land. It’s quite simply a method that has relaxation at the core.

Developed in the 1950s by behavior therapy pioneer Joseph Wolpe, systematic desensitization is based on the principles of “classical conditioning.” The idea is that when humans learn something, they are being ‘conditioned,’ so if someone with anxiety can be ‘unconditioned’ then the fears they have come to learn to be afraid of can therefore also be removed by reversing the learning…a kind of self brainwashing in a way.

The process involves facing the fear, but in gradual stages. In a series of sessions, people with anxiety disorders are encouraged to follow a pattern of progression that eventually takes them right up to the very edge of what causes them such distress, meet it head on, and then learn to see it for it generally is – an irrational fear. Using the relaxation techniques adopted to compete with the anxiety during the therapy, people can then take their new “desensitized self” out into the world and their real-life situations and consequently tackle the things that trigger their anxiety full-on when they arise, therefore preventing the anxiety from taking root.

Systematic Desensitization

Learning to relax then is the key to systematic desensitization, and there are two main types of relaxation techniques used. The first is Deep Breathing. The way we breathe is important, because during stressful situations when faced with fear our breathing becomes unconsciously rapid, and shallow, which is known as “chest breathing.” When we start chest breathing, the oxygen and carbon levels in the body are disturbed leading to increased heart rate, dizziness, and muscle tension, among other physical responses associated with anxiety, and stress.

This “stress response” is what happens when physiological changes occur in our bodies when faced with a perceived threat, or in the case of people with anxiety disorder, the irrational fear they have that something catastrophic is going to happen to them, or a loved one. When the stress response is triggered there is a burst of adrenaline, a quickening of the pulse, and re-direction of blood away from the extremities of the body to the major organs. This natural response of the body is intended to give us a burst of energy if we need to fight off enemies, or take flight (also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response). It was useful back in the primeval days when this response was required more often, but nowadays the threats we face are less physical. They are arguably more psychological. Hence the onus is more on the mind than the body, and why a mental response has proven more successful when dealing with anxiety disorders, because the fears associated with anxiety are based on imagined threats rather than real physical ones.

This takes us back to relaxation. For in its natural state, if left free from stress, the human body will always be relaxed, and calm, and free from trauma. Thus the second relaxation method taught during systematic desensitization sessions is Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Muscle tension is almost a given during stressful moments. We “tense up,” brace ourselves ready to defend an “attack” in whatever form it takes – even if it is mental. In fact muscle tension can happen so automatically during our day-to-day life we may be completely unaware that we are tense. But being tense is not good for the body if it happens a lot or all the time, as is the case with people with anxiety disorders. 

So, through systematic desensitization, people with anxiety disorders learn how to relax their breathing, and their muscles, as part of the new conditioning process that will eventually help them confront their irrational fears.

And this is where Visualization comes in to the therapy. This is the technique that enables people to imagine they are in a peaceful, stress-free setting whereby they can then enter a state of mental and physical relaxation. They are then introduced to their fears in a series of imagined situations, and use the relaxation methods to meet, and overcome their anxiety.

And it works.

Systematic desensitization has been around since the 1950s, and is still regarded by healthcare practitioners as one of the most effective ways for people to combat their anxiety disorders.

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"I am a recent user of the Linden Method (indeed just started last week!) I was suffering from anxiety and panick attacks since last year, it got so disturbing I thought that even death was better, my thoughts drove me crazy and also these feelings which came with derealisation and depersonalisation. I then found the linden method as I was looking at videos on YouTube, about anxiety.

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Karin Regenass

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Stop Panic Attacks With The Linden Method