Systematic Desensitization: Does It Work for Anxiety and Phobias?

Also called graduated exposure therapy, systematic desensitization is a therapeutic intervention for anxiety disorders, particularly phobias.

The therapy involves being exposed to situations that typically cause you high levels of stress and fear. The therapy may begin with a situation that isn’t as fear-inducing to you but progressively moves to more intense situations.

“Desensitization” refers to becoming less reactive to a stimulus in this context. The process is done in a “systematic” way, following a methodical step-by-step plan.

Systematic desensitization avoids exposing you to your greatest fears in the beginning. Instead, you’ll work your way up, going from less stressful to more stressful stimuli, and learn new coping techniques.

The three main characteristics of systematic desensitization are:

  • the creation of a fear hierarchy where you score your fears from 1 to 10, 10 being the scariest
  • the gradual exposure to these stressors from 1 to 10
  • relaxation techniques such as visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness

Because exposure is systematic and gradual, your body and mind become desensitized to the stressors. Because you learn relaxation techniques, you develop coping skills to face your fears.

Systematic desensitization differs from exposure response prevention therapy (ERP). Although both involve exposure to anxiety-inducing stimuli, ERP is typically used for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

ERP aims to expose you to events related to your obsessive thoughts and prevent you from engaging in compulsions every time exposure happens.

Is systematic desensitization a type of CBT?

Yes. Because systematic desensitization is a form of exposure therapy, it’s often considered cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). As in CBT, systematic desensitization also addresses unhealthy thinking patterns and behaviors, thus helping you better cope with stressful situations.

Systemic desensitization is also similar to applied behavior analysis — both are forms of behavioral therapy. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) involves systematically encouraging particular behaviors and discouraging other behaviors.

Unlike systemic desensitization, ABA is controversial, especially in the autism community. It encourages autistic children to conform to other people’s ideas of “normal” behavior, often at the expense of their emotional wellness and individuality. For example, ABA can involve punishing the child for behaviors associated with autism.