Relaxing Your Fears Away (Wolpe)

Systematic Desensitization
Systematic Desensitization was first suggested byJoseph Wolpe. It is used to decrease the level of anxiety or fear slowly. It is a behavior therapy used to unlearn ineffective behavior; it is used to trat anxiety disorders such as phobias.

Theoretical Propositions
Wolpe started the research as study of reduction of fear in rats. In the first research with rats, Wolpe showed the pictures of rats as he feeds the rats. As the result, the rats' fear of cat disappeared slowly. Using this idea, Wolpe applied to treat humans.

This study was devided into three main steps. For the first step, the patient will be learning how to deal with very small phobias. The therapist will teach the patient how to relax his or her body. This process requires tensing and relaxing various groups of muscles throughtout the body until a deep state of relaxation is achieved. When the patient masters this, he or she will be able to achieve total relaxation whenever he or she wants. To get rid of the fear or anxiety, the patient and the therapist need to know how the patient is uncomfortable with his or her fears. In order to make it simple, the therapist helps the patient to construct an anxiety hierarchy. Total number of anxieties can be from around 5 to 20 items. Beginning with an axiety that is slightly uncomfortable, to the most frightening anxiety. In the third step, the patient will be unlearning. The patient will put himself or herself in a state of deep relaxation. When it is done, the therapist will begin to walk the pation through his or her hierarchy. In this stage, the patient will imagine the situation and try to stay calm. If the patient remains relaxed, the therapist will continue through the hierarchy. If the patient experiences anxiety, he or she will be raising index finger as the patient was instructed to. When it occurs, the therapist will stop and start over from the lower ones. The process will be continued until the patient is able to remain calm throughout the whole hierarchy.

Total of 39 cases were reported in Wolpe's article. The success of therapy was judged by patients' own thought and by direct observation. The desensitization process rate of success was determined as completely successful, partially successful, and unsucessful. Out of 39 cases, total of 68 phobias were treated. 62 phobias by 35 patients were completely or partially successful. Some of the cases included curing claustrophobia, crowds, bright light, wounds, rejection, snakes, and storms.

Discussion & Related Research

Wolpe's research led to assertiveness training. In order for desensitization to proceed, it requires a gradual move into new behaviors. People who have trouble asserting themselves are very much like phobics. Assertiveness training allows them to build their confidence, relax even in stressful situations, and conquer their fear eventually. Wolpe's most important contribution to psychiatry is the introduction of combination of two disparate disciplines. Many psychologists and psychiatrists felt that methods based in applied science lacked the humanistic ideals when dealing with people. Wolpe used effective, compassionate therapy with empirical methods in a way that used both to their best advantage.

University of Queensland researchers (2008)
Unlocking The Psychology Of Snake And Spider Phobias

“people tend to be exposed to a lot of negative information regarding snakes and spiders, and we argue this makes them more likely to be associated with phobia.”

It is an opposite example of systematic desensitivization. Instead of being exposed to spiders and snakes in positive ways, people are more exposed to negative sides of spiders and snakes. Therefore, many people started to get phobias those animals.

Many of the people tested were from psychoanalytic camps. Also the methods only treated symptoms, ignoring the underlying causes of anxiety.
There were possibility of other symptoms replacing the one that has been treated.

Recent Applications
Paul 1969
He treated public speaking phobia. People were asked to practice speech, then they were split into groups. Systematic desensitization proved to be successful.

Fredrickson 2000
He used reciprocal inhibition to remove negative thoughts with positive thoughts.

Zettle 2003
He used progressive relaxation to cure math phobia.

Other related Terms & Concepts

systematic desensitivzation: type of behavioral.classical conditioning therapy that helps to overcome phobias and anxiety disorders by letting patients gradually be exposed to what they fear.

behavior therapy: form of psychotherapy used to treat depression, anxiety disorders, phobias, and many other forms of psychological disorders

psychiatry: a medical specialty devoted to the treatment, study, and prevention of mental disorders.

Subjective Units of Disturbance Scale (SUDS): scale of 0 to 10 for measuring the subjective intensity of disturbance or distress currently experienced by an individual

Definitions from

External Websites
Joseph Wolpe
Systematic desensitization
Detailed procedure of systematic desensitization


by Keunwha and Matt

More pages