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Managing Fear and Phobias on Your OwnDesensitization

The best way to conquer your phobia is to face it. That sounds easy, right? Of course, it's not; it's very difficult. One process, called desensitization, can make facing your phobia as stress-free as possible. Through desensitization, you “unlearn” the association between fear and your phobic object or activity. By handling the object or activity in a relaxed, comfortable state, you begin to unravel its connection with anxiety.

Desensitization relies on a phobia hierarchy, or ranking. The phobia must first be broken down into a hierarchy of separate scenes of increasing intensity.

For example, if you are phobic of spiders, you can create the following hierarchy:

Looking at a picture of a spider

Touching a picture of a spider

Looking at a toy spider

Touching a toy spider

Looking at a live spider

Touching a live spider

Holding a live spider

Through desensitization, you deal with only one scene at a time. You start with the spiderlike object and gradually work your way through the hierarchy until you can hold a live spider without feeling any anxiety

Depending on the severity of your phobia, you can use two types of desensitization. The first, imagery desensitization, is much like visualization. The second, real-life desensitization, is a more aggressive approach.

Imagery Desensitization

Using imagery desensitization, you imagine yourself in a phobic scene at a time when you are very relaxed. When you start feeling anxious, you immediately picture a peaceful, soothing scene instead. In this way, you can gradually build toward more intense situations without overwhelming yourself with fear and anxiety. As with visualization, you began to break the connection between the phobic scene and anxiety, replacing the anxiety with calm.

To practice imagery desensitization, follow these steps.

  • Find a quiet, private, comfortable place to practice.
  • Take a few deep breaths. Relax your muscles and empty your mind of thoughts and worries.
  • Picture yourself feeling calm and relaxed in the first scene of your phobia hierarchy. Try to stay here for at least one minute. Afterward, if you feel little or no anxiety, imagine the second scene in your hierarchy.
  • Try to stay in the second scene for at least a minute. If you feel anxious, leave your phobic scene and imagine instead a peaceful scene. Once you have relaxed, return to your phobic scene. Alternate between your peaceful scene and the phobic scene until the phobic scene no longer makes you feel fear or anxiety
  • Continue traveling up your hierarchy until you can imagine its highest level without anxiety. This process could take days, weeks, or even months, depending on the intensity of your fear. You may progress slowly, but you will eventually succeed.

Real-Life Desensitization

Real-life desensitization is the most effective method of conquering a phobia. Many therapists employ real-life desensitization with their patients during therapy. However, you do not need to be in therapy to use real-life desensitization.

Most people practice imagery desensitization before turning to real-life desensitization. If you decide to do so, you can start real-life desensitization when you have reached midway or farther through your hierarchy in imagery desensitization. You will use the same hierarchy for real-life desensitization as for imagery desensitization, and you should begin at the bottom. As you go through the hierarchy, add extra steps if you are having difficulty. If you think you will need someone to support you, ask a friend, parent, or someone else you trust to help you.

Effective, real-life desensitization is very difficult. It requires a strong commitment on your part. You must be willing to experience uncomfortable feelings and to confront your fear and anxiety. Not everyone is willing or able to face their phobic situation. However, if you can do so, you can beat your phobia. As with any phobia you are managing yourself, seek professional help immediately if your anxiety becomes overwhelming.

Some Extra Things to Remember

  • Anticipate failures and setbacks; they are only temporary. Be ready to try again.
  • Expect to experience some discomfort. Try to mentally prepare yourself.
  • Congratulate yourself, even reward yourself, for small successes. Even the tiniest step is a step forward.
  • Go at your own pace. The desensitization process takes time.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaPhobiasPhobias - Managing Fear and Phobias on Your Own - Self-talk, Visualization, Desensitization, A Word Of Warning