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.
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
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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