Abnormal Psychology: Mental Health and Mental Illness


How is classical conditioning used in psychotherapy?

Classical conditioning techniques are extremely effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders. In these disorders, the people have learned to associate various stimuli with fear. To treat the anxiety disorder, it is necessary to dissociate the feared object (e.g., dogs) from the fear reaction. In this way, the conditioned stimulus (dogs) is disconnected from the conditioned response (fear of dogs). Techniques such as flooding and systematic desensitization expose people to their feared objects, either gradually (systematic desensitization) or all at once (flooding). When no harm comes from the exposure to the object, the fear response diminishes. The conditioned stimulus becomes decoupled from the conditioned response and, voilá, the person is no longer afraid of dogs. Further, a new association can be created between the formerly feared object and feelings of relaxation and calm. In other words, a pairing is made between the conditioned stimulus and a new (positive) conditioned response. Relaxation training, involving techniques such as deep breathing, visualization of a pleasant scene, and progressive muscle relaxation, can be used to help the person feel relaxed when in the presence of the formerly feared object.


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