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A behavior modification technique used to combat phobias and other irrational fears.

Developed by Joseph Wolpe in the 1950s, desensitization is a treatment method which weakens the learned association between anxiety and feared objects or situations by strengthening another response—in this case, relaxation—that is incompatible with anxiety. Relaxation responses are strengthened through progressive relaxation training, first developed by Edmund Jacobson in the 1930s. Clients first tighten and then relax 16 different muscle groups in various parts of the body, releasing the tension and focusing on the resulting feelings of relaxation. Once people learn how their muscles feel when they are truly relaxed, they develop the ability to reproduce this state voluntarily and in a variety of situations.

Next, the client outlines an "anxiety hierarchy," a list of situations or stimuli arranged in order from least to most anxiety-provoking. For a person who is afraid of flying, such a list might begin with seeing a picture of an airplane, eventually progress to driving to the airport, and end with taking an actual plane flight. With the aid of the therapist, the client then works through the list, either imagining or actually experiencing each situation while in a state of relaxation. When tolerance for each listed item is established, the client moves on to the next one. As clients face progressively more threatening situations, relaxation rather than fear becomes associated with the source of their anxiety, and they become gradually desensitized to it. While exposure through mental imagery does produce desensitization, actual real-life exposure to the feared stimulus whenever possible is more effective.

Further Reading

Craighead, W. Edward. Behavior Modification: Principles, Issues, and Applications. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

Skinner, B.F. About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf, 1974.

Wolpe, Joseph. The Practice of Behavior Therapy. Tarrytown, NY: Pergamon Press, 1990.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaTherapy and Treatments