Abnormal Psychology: Mental Health and Mental Illness


What is systematic desensitization?

One of the most commonly used techniques to help people unlearn fear conditioning is called systematic desensitization. People are first asked to create a hierarchy of situations in which they might feel anxious. For example, people who are afraid of dogs might first list thinking about a dog, then seeing a picture of a dog, then seeing a dog from far away, then seeing a dog in a cage, then seeing a dog ten feet away, then five feet away, then standing right next to a dog, and then finally petting the dog. Using a scale from 0 to 100, each situation is scored as to how much anxiety it elicits. Imagining a dog might get a rating of 5, seeing a picture of a dog a score of 10, and touching a dog a score of 65.

The client is then taught relaxation strategies, in order to learn to feel calm when in the anxiety-provoking situation. Next the client is exposed to the situations listed on the hierarchy, starting with the least anxiety-provoking (imagining the dog) and gradually moving up the list to the most anxiety-provoking (petting the dog). At each point, clients are instructed to use relaxation techniques until they can tolerate each step on the hierarchy without undue anxiety. This is an extremely effective technique, and it is used to help people overcome all manner of anxiety problems, including the fear of flying, public speaking, heights, or test taking.


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