Phobias Be Gone! Relax into Your Fear with Systematic Desensitization

A little wine may also do the trick

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Phobias and fears, in general, are learned. How do we break that cycle? Professor Vishton describes one method that he believes is extremely effective and is backed by much research.

With practice, almost everyone can get good at calming their mind and body through relaxation techniques, centering themselves. Photo By Jack Frog / Shutterstock

How Systematic Desensitization Works

All science-backed methods of overcoming phobias have something in common: recalling memories of fear-inducing situations and then weakening the associations between those memories and the fear itself. One of the oldest techniques is called systematic desensitization.

Many different versions exist. Here is one example. 

Start by relaxing—calming yourself, willfully placing yourself into a state of as complete a relaxation as possible. Not everyone is good at this, by the way. It sounds easy—sit still, do nothing, focus on your breathing, focus on relaxing all of your muscles one at a time. 

If you’re tense, though—especially if you are plagued by fears—this can be a challenge by itself. Regardless, with practice, almost everyone can get good at calming their mind and body.

Once you are fully relaxed for 10 minutes or so, you then think about the source of your fear—you remember a time when you were in an elevator or on a plane or speaking in front of an audience. This memory will cause you to become a bit tense as the anxiety and fight or flight response kicks in. 

You relax and wait for it to pass. You then repeat this process. Then you repeat again, and you repeat it again. 

Eventually—and this phase of the process can take some time, in some cases many sessions of practicing this—you’ll be able to think about that fear-inducing experience without feeling the anxiety—-at least not the paralyzing anxiety we associate with fear.

Learning to Relax

One way that you might make this a little easier on yourself is to try it sometimes when you are already relaxed and happy. Maybe even when you are with a friend or two. 

Just take a break from the conversation, close your eyes, and imagine the thing that you fear. If you do this enough, you’ll build that association between the thing and happy emotions. In so doing, you will weaken the association that it has with fear.

“I don’t know of any study that has specifically addressed it, but I’m confident that alcoholic beverages might be especially useful here,” Professor Vishton said. “There are many problems associated with excessive alcohol use, but it is undeniable that, in moderation, alcohol can help to induce a state of relaxation. If you have a drink or two before you start your desensitization work, you might have to exert a lot less willpower in order to maintain your relaxation as you focus on imagining something that has typically caused you to feel anything but.”

Addressing Flying Phobia

The process is then repeated while systematically moving closer and closer to the feared experience. Let’s consider the fear of flying. Once you’ve mastered relaxing while just thinking about flying, how about looking at a picture of the inside of an airplane? 

Once you can look at photos while maintaining that relaxation state, think about flying and still relax, it might be time to take the next step and go to the airport and relax. Eventually, the process ends with actually getting onto an airplane while remaining calm and relaxed. Some treatments involve using virtual reality to simulate one of these experiences before you try it in real life.

If you can fly and stay relaxed a few times, the phobia will have ended—or at least been mastered. One way of describing the systematic desensitization process is to create new memories—to overwrite the old ones to some extent—in which the external cues are associated with relaxation rather than fear. 

“It works. There is no question about it; this definitely works,” Professor Vishton said. “Decades of research support this methodology for treating fears of everything from flying to snakes to general agoraphobia—a fear of leaving your house at all.”

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.