Systematic Desensitization: An Effective treatment for Phobias

Phobias are irrational fears of specific situations, objects or creatures. A phobic person has usually had certain childhood experiences that caused him/her to fear the object in question. Each phobia has a complicated medical name but to keep things simple, a few examples of common phobias are: the fear of cats, spiders, cockroaches and even a fear of men (some of them can be pretty intimidating!).

However, people who are phobic will find reassurance in the fact that almost every phobia can be cured. However, before discussing how to cure a person of their irrational fears, it is important to state that the person who is phobic must actually WANT to cure his/her phobia. The treatment of such states of mind requires active involvement of the person, and unless he/she is committed to the cause of fighting off their feelings of terror, there is no way those feelings could be banished.

Having said that; the most popular treatment, which is effective in the case of most phobias is called systematic desensitization, which simply means that the individual is gradually desensitized in a systematic way. Desensitization involves slowly making the person develop an acceptability of the existence and/or presence of object that they fear.

To explain the process let’s take the example of a person who has a very extreme phobia of cats. This phobia is also known as “Ailurophobia”. In order to help a person overcome their irrational fear of this animal, which is generally perceived as cute and harmless, one must begin by simply talking to the individual; not just about their fear and what seems to have caused it, but also about cats. Just bring up the subject randomly, and be descriptive.

At first just talk about cats: what they look like (of course everyone already knows but this helps reduce the fear at a subconscious level) and how they feel or about their purring sounds; then after a few such discussions (that took place on separate occasions), speak about holding and petting cats or letting them sit on ‘your own’ lap. Initially do not speak of the cat being in the lap of the phobic person, as that too may be stressful and intimidating. Each of these stages should take place after considerable time has elapsed (let’s say a week or so).

Eventually, introduce a “stuffed cat” into the scenario. Do not push the person to hold or touch it. Just let it sit there as you speak of anything and everything under the sun. Next step: a real cat is brought in, but held by you at a distance. The phobic individual will see how you have not been harmed in anyway because of the cat.

Slowly and gradually, after a number of such sittings in which the individual is not required to hold or touch the cat, you will find that they themselves may start taking an interest in the cat. Eventually, there will come a time when they’d like to pet the cat, perhaps surreptitiously and/or cautiously at first. With time their courage will increase and they would be willing to hold the cat and pet it at length. Mission accomplished!

At all times during the process of systematic desensitization, be aware that a situation may arise in which the phobic individual insists upon abandoning the attempt to eradicate their fear(s); temporarily or permanently. In either case, it’s their call, so do not try to be pushy. If they seem too disturbed, do not even insist once. After all, living with a phobia could perhaps be better than experiencing further psychological problems.


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