Systematic Desensitization

Systematic Desensitization

Understanding Systematic Desensitization

Systematic Desensitization is a type of behavioral therapy used to help people overcome irrational fears or phobias. The goal is to gradually expose the person to what they fear in a safe, controlled way so that over time, their anxiety response decreases. This allows them to confront and manage fear-inducing situations.

How Does it Work?

First, the therapist works with the client to rank their fear hierarchy – listing fear-triggering situations from least to most anxiety-provoking. Next, the client is taught relaxation techniques like deep breathing or visualization. Then, starting from the bottom of the list, the client imagines the fearful situations while using the relaxation skills. Over multiple sessions, they work up towards more challenging items on the hierarchy. With repeated, calm exposures, the person begins to associate the stimuli with feeling relaxed rather than afraid.

When is it Helpful?

Systematic Desensitization can be effective for treating phobias related to:

  • Animals or insects
  • Heights
  • Driving
  • Flying
  • Needles or blood
  • Public speaking

It works well because it relies on classical conditioning principles. By presenting the frightening cue along with a pleasant, relaxed state over and over, the fear response eventually weakens and a new positive association is formed.


Some drawbacks include:

  • Time-intensive for both therapist and client
  • Difficulty sticking to the exposure hierarchy
  • Possibility of the fear returning if not maintained
  • Doesn’t work for everyone

Even with its challenges, research shows Systematic Desensitization and other behavioral approaches can lead to lasting change for many people combating phobias when applied consistently and with support.