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Systematic Desensitization: A "How-To" Guide

Updated on April 20, 2012

Systematic Desensitization is a technique employed in Psychotherapy to treat Phobias and Anxiety and related disorders e.g Social Anxiety and phobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Panic Attacks, OCD, Claustrophobia, Agoraphobia, Acrophobia and many more related disorders. Systematic desensitization is an effective exercise which aims to "desensitize" the senses to dreaded stimuli and situations. It brings back control into the life of someone who feels scared and out of balance and who is yearning for a wisp of control over fear and life!

Living in perpetual fear is a tough deal. And when the fear is either unrealistic or exaggerated or the source of fear is elusive, it becomes tougher still. Surrounded by "normal" persons who step into the elevator without breaking stride or conversation while your heart is pounding in your chest, drumming in your ears and thudding in your head while you contemplate ways and excuses to take the stairs, you feel alone and miserable and abnormal and it hurts goddammit, it HURTS!

Ask someone who has suffered the feeling of intense fear associated with panic, anxiety or phobia, and they will tell you that its worse than anything in the world. Its like living with a twin barrel gun sticking down your throat ALL THE TIME. Not comfortable. Is it?

The good news is that its possible to overcome these feelings of exaggerated and unbearable fear which deters you from a normal and healthy lifestyle. It will take a bit of time and patience. It will take determination and doggedness. But it will be done. Another good thing is that, people who suffer these neuroses are generally intelligent and ambitious people. So odds are that they will win the battle.

How To perform Systematic Desensitization on Yourself

  • The most important step when starting to work on a program to cure your mind of fears is to gather data. So, make a list of all the situations and things that scare you. Once you have the list, start working with the point of least resistance: the situation you fear the LEAST. This way, you'll have a better chance of succeeding with minimal effort and a success is going to reinforce positive beliefs about your capabilities.
  • Reserve an hour in the day for the exercise, preferably a quiet time in the day. I would suggest you avoid doing it at bedtime. The reason is that you don't want to do something radically proactive at night: it may interfere with sleep.
  • Find and dedicate a quiet, peaceful corner for the practice.
  • Sit or lay yourself down and relax as much as possible. Take a few deep breaths. Deep breathing takes you into a relaxed state so that you are more likely to focus your mind.
  • Now imagine the least dreaded situation. Visualize it. Lets say, for instance, that you are scared of enclosed spaces. And you want to get over the fear of subways and tunnels and cars and elevators. Now out of these situations, pick the one which is relatively less frightening. And visualize yourself there.
  • Out of the above situations in the example, let's suppose sitting in the car is the least bothersome. So what you do is visualize a calm, relaxed and normal "you" sitting in the car.
  • Divide the situation into scenes for maximum benefit. Visualize yourself getting out into the garage, and imagine that you are totally relaxed doing that. Now try relaxing your muscles and calming yourself down while visualizing yourself in the garage.... Repeat the exercise till you are fairly in control and relaxed imagining the situation. Take your time. Remember it might take a few days of practice to get the hang of it.
  • Now go to the next scene. Play it like a movie in your head. You now open the door of the car and climb in. Calmly. Visualize yourself totally relaxed and cool about the journey. Relax yourself with the vision. Relax your muscles. Keep your breathing steady. Now repeat this a few times.
  • Keep visualizing each step of the situation and visualize a successful culmination of the task. Every time you do it, imagine that you are actually doing what you fear, without being fearful.
  • Once you have learned the art of visualization and also practiced relaxing yourself for a couple of weeks, try doing the dreaded thing for real. You'll find that you are much less tense while actually doing it. The idea is rehearsal for the show. You teach yourself to face the fear by facing it in small increments over time and in your head.
  • Keep working on your technique. Refine it. Modify it to suit your specific needs. Be creative. But... Don't quit it. Even if you stumble a bit on the way.

You will undoubtedly face obstacles on the way to recovery. Be prepared for that. But never ever believe that you aren't going to make it. because you WILL.


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