Systematic Desensitization Steps
There are 3 steps of systematic desensitization that can help a person break down an anxiety response. These steps introduce relaxation techniques and teach the patient how to use them when exposed to an anxiety-inducing situation. These systematic desensitization steps help clients slowly build skills and tolerance to manage fear and anxiety.
The first stage of therapy includes learning relaxation techniques for anxiety. Relaxation techniques usually involve “progressive relaxation,” which includes mindfully relaxing parts of the body bit by bit until all muscles are relaxed and the patient is able to feel the difference between tense and relaxed muscles.
A fear or anxiety hierarchy represents a series of increasingly anxiety-inducing situations as ranked by the patient. The patient and therapist establish a hierarchical list of situations that trigger fear or panic in the patient.
An anxiety hierarchy example includes a therapist introducing a situation that provokes anxiety.
Then, while practicing the relaxation techniques, the patient visualizes this situation. If the patient is able to maintain relaxed during this exposure, the therapist can progress to the next level in the hierarchy. This process continues gradually until the patient no longer feels anxiety when visualizing their fears.
Applying Relaxation to Anxiety Hierarchy
Several relaxation techniques can be used to manage uncomfortable feelings that may arise as a client works through their anxiety and fear hierarchy. These include:
- Tension-relaxation cycles, where the therapist instructs the patient to tense a muscle group and then mindfully relax those same muscles
- Progression of relaxation from head to toe (or in reverse)
- Practicing relaxation at home with recordings and keeping track of practice sessions and feelings during the session
These relaxation techniques can also be used for anxiety attacks, and can help a patient if they encounter an anxiety-inducing situation in the real world.