Published on 03 October 2021

Systematic Desensitization: Techniques, & Efficacy

Psychological Therapy systematic-desensitization
Table of Contents

As human beings, we all have a fear of any particular thing that can be common, but if this fear sticks to you for a long time, then it cannot be common. It would be called a phobia. As per some reports, 9.1% of Americans, which is more than 19 million people, have a specific phobia, wherein some people have more than one phobia.

While certain people can regulate their emotions, others are too sensitive to certain aspects of their environment. This can mean 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 fear and phobia. Desensitization means becoming oblivious to the same stimuli.

Just an Imagination, during childhood, you are in a forest, and 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 rustling leaves. Now, this matter can be tackled using Systematic Desensitization Therapy. 

What Is Systematic Desensitization Therapy?

Systematic desensitization therapy is a behavioral therapy that treats anxiety, phobias, OCD(Over Compulsive Disorder), and PTSD( Post-traumatic stress disorder). It is also called graduated exposure therapy. It is based on the principle of classical conditioning, which was developed by Wolpe in 1950. 

Systematic Desensitization is 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 mind through positive psychotherapy

The therapist teaches the patient how to ignore or desensitize from an overtly extreme reaction through specific techniques in various sessions.

Who Should Take Systematic Desensitization Therapy?

Phobias like arachnophobia, cynophobia, acrophobia, and claustrophobia should undergo systematic desensitization therapy.

Those who have severe mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which can lead to anxiety or fear due to experiencing various incidents, must take this therapy. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Yes, you can conduct this therapy in your home, but it should be under your therapist's guidelines so that you would get more effective results.
Fear hierarchy, Relaxation training, and Reciprocal inhibition are the three components of systematic desensitization.
Systematic desensitization is very important for those who suffer from phobia and other anxiety disorders. This Therapy works through various sessions without any medication.

Systematic Desensitization Therapy Techniques

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 through various techniques such as Imagery, Progressive Muscle Reaction, Music, etc., 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. 

Therapists can use many techniques for relaxation because without them, you can’t overcome your phobia, and once you relax, the second process will start.


The next step is to expose the person to all the issues causing fear. This will be in a graded manner. The therapist will position the person in a scary situation. The therapist will then ask the person 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: through visualization(in vitro) and in reality(in vivo). This can be explained using an example: Let us imagine 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.


This is the most important part of this therapy, where you actually react to your phobia. After the exposure, the therapist picks up the most challenging emotion and guides the patient. The therapist’s main aim will be to get the patient to overcome their phobias.

This process is referred to as desensitization. What once elicited a robust and sensitive response will no longer cause the reaction, thus making the patient desensitized and capable of handling the phobia.

Duration Of Systematic Desensitization Therapy

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 fine for this therapy to work. It all depends upon the intensity of the phobia. In this therapy, Therapists can take up to 12 sessions depending on the experience of the therapist and also on the level of the patient's trauma.

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, 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. 

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 the effects to show.

Efficacy Of The Treatment

The therapist has to rely a lot on the person facing the problem 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.

In vitro therapy, where patients have to visualize a situation of their phobia, this visualization depends upon the patient’s mind. Sometimes this visualization may make the patient anxious. If a patient can’t have the ability to visualize, then the whole procedure of therapy would fail. Like in vivo therapy, a person would feel more anxious or phobic by watching or feeling what he fears.  

Bottom Line From Practical Anxiety Solutions

We believe there is no harm in trying out this therapy. As long as this therapy is done under proper guidance from an experienced therapist, you are good to go. Coordinating with the therapist’s techniques would definitely overcome your phobia. 

It is a time-consuming therapy. The therapy duration takes a little time to show its results depending upon the potency of the phobia. 

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.