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10) Pyschological Therapies – Systematic Desensitisation


Systematic Desensitisation (SD)


Systematic Desensitisation is based on the behavioural model of abnormality, particularly classical conditioning.


SD is normally used to treat anxiety and phobias, as behaviourists say these commonly result from classical conditioning.


SD involves gradually introducing the patient to their fear through a hierarchy of scenes and events, each designed to induce more anxiety to the patient then the previous one. An example of the SD process is:


1)      Patient is taught how to relax completely


2)      Therapist and patient together create the hierarchy, each stage causing increasing anxiety.


3)      Patient gradually works his way through hierarchy, whilst attempting to relax as shown in stage 1


4)      Once a patient is able to imagine one stage of the hierarchy whilst still in completely relaxed stage he can move to the next stage up


5)      Patient eventually is able to master the highest stage whilst being completely relaxed so they have overcome the abnormality of the phobia.






+ They are relatively quick


+ Require less effort than some other treatments


+ Could be the only option – For some groups of patients, for example people with certain learning difficulties, SD is the only option that they can really use


+Effectiveness – McGrath et al (1990) found that 75% of patients with phobias respond to SD. Capafons et al (1998) found that patients with a fear of flying showed less physiological signs of fear and reported lower fear levels whilst in a flight simulator.




– Symptom substitution – SD might appear to resolve the problem, but instead the symptom is just replaced with other symptoms. Langevin (1983) however said there is no evidence supporting this.


– Reduced effectiveness for some phobias – Ohman et al (1975) might not be as effective at treating phobias that we have developed in evolution to help us survive, for example fear of heights and dangerous animals, as it is for treating phobias that stem from personal experiences.







About Sam Cook

A blog set up to help A Level students revise Sociology


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