Published on 03 October 2021

Systematic Desensitization: Techniques, & Efficacy

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Table of Contents

Systematic, as the name suggests, implies something that is done regularly. Desensitization is the opposite of the term sensitization.

Sensitization refers to a persons reaction when exposed to specific stimuli.

We can also refer to this as sensitivity. While certain people can regulate their emotions, others are too sensitive to certain aspects of their environment. This can mean an extreme fear or phobia.

This fear can be so severe that it can impede daily living. Such fears and phobias need to be tackled. The best way to do this is by desensitizing the affected person from that very fear and phobia. Desensitization means becoming oblivious to the same stimuli.

For example, let us say you are in a forest and a child. Suddenly you hear the rustling of leaves, and you are attacked by a lion. As a child, you will be traumatized.

Now, as you grow up, whenever you hear the rustling of leaves, you will feel the same panic. In a way, you would become sensitive to the stimuli of rustling leaves.

Even if there is no real reason, you will develop a phobia of the rustling of leaves. Now, this matter can be tackled using Systematic Desensitization Therapy. (Rachman, S. 1967)

Systematic Desensitization means a process in which the therapist exposes the patient to those forms of stimuli that gradually cause stress to the patient. This could also be done by initiating positive energy in the mind through positive psychotherapy.

The therapist then teaches the patient how to ignore or desensitize from an overtly unnecessary reaction.

How is Systematic Desensitization therapy done?

There are three stages to systematic desensitization: relaxation, gradual exposure, and reaction. Let us look at each of these stages in detail:


The therapist starts by relaxing the patient. Various techniques such as Imagery, Progressive Muscle Reaction, Music, etc. are used to relax the patient's mind. Music therapy is one of the best therapy doctors might suggest because it provides calmness to the body.


The next step is to expose the patient to all the issues causing fear. This will be in a graded manner. The therapist will position the patient in a scary situation. The therapist will then ask the patient to grade the given fear on a scale of 1 to 10. One being the least fearful and ten being the most fearful.

There are two kinds of exposure - one is through visualization, and another is in reality. This can be explained using an example:

Let us say that you have a fear of crossing a road. Now, under the virtual exposure, the therapist will ask you to imagine yourself in a situation where you have to cross a road.

On the other hand, in case of real exposure, the therapist will take you to a road crossing and then guide you in handling your fears.

The choice between visualization versus real stimulation is dependent on several aspects. Most therapists are likely to use visualization as it is more practical.


The therapist then picks up the most challenging emotion and guides the patient. The therapists main aim will be to get the patient to overcome their phobias. This process is referred to as desensitization. What was once elicited a strong, sensitive response will no longer cause the reaction, thus making the patient desensitized and capable of handling the phobia.

Duration of Psychoanalysis

This therapy is a slow and gradual process. The slower it is, the more effective it will be. Roughly 8 to 10 sessions of an hour each should be just fine for this therapy to work. With therapy, there is no fixed time period. It varies depending on the experience of the therapist and also on the level of the trauma of the patient.

What are the advantages of Systematic Desensitization Therapy?

Slow and gradual process: This therapy is piecemeal. There is no hurry. This creates a sense of calm in the mind of the patient. The patient feels comfortable even when exposed to stimuli that can create fear.

It is a long-term solution: Ten sessions with the therapist can change the patient. The patient will learn a technique for a lifetime. This acquired skill means less stress, a better life, and in some cases also better sleep.

No use of medications: Medications are not harmful by nature. However, there have always been reservations when it comes to medications. The biggest reservation is getting dependent on medications. No medications are used in this process, making it a good choice.

What are the disadvantages of Systematic Desensitization Therapy?

The pace of treatment: What is an advantage for some, maybe looked upon as a disadvantage by someone else. This therapy is certainly not a quick fix. It will take some time for effects to show.
Efficacy of the treatment: The therapist has to rely a lot on the patient in this treatment. There may be times when the patient's perception may not be correct. In this case, the effectiveness of this therapy will be doubtful.

Final Words From PAS

We believe there is no harm in trying out this therapy. So long as this therapy is done under proper guidance with an experienced therapist, you are good to go. We hope our insights on this therapy will help you make an informed decision. But still taking medications must be your final call, as you must not get dependent on medications for any problem.