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© George Hartwell M.Sc.


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Desensitization of fears and phobias - the learning and unlearning fears

© George Hartwell M.Sc. commercial rights reserved.

Fears can be viewed as a form of learning or conditioning. What is learned can be unlearned. Conditioning can be reversed.

When a neutral stimulus (sound, sight, thought or image) is associated with frightening thought, image or experience learning may occur. One may learn to be anxious and to avoid the neutral stimulus.

A young child may be quite startled, shocked and afraid when a balloon breaks. The experience may be so dramatic that the child is anxious in the presence of balloons and avoids them in the future. Avoiding balloons reduces the anxiety and rewards the behaviour of avoiding balloons. This would be how a 'balloon phobia' could start.

In this example, balloon phobia, 'counterconditioning' may be needed. New conditioned associations with balloons will reduce the power of the original conditioning and reduce or remove the fear. Basically this person needs to experience balloons in a positive mood or state.

One could design treatment by associating balloons with different forms of music, food, beautiful scenery, an attractive person, etc. In systematic desensitization relaxed states and relaxation images are alternated with imagined scenes associated with anxiety.

Systematic Desensitization of Test Anxiety

Some students have good marks and intelligence but block, choke of freeze in formal tests and exams and do poorly. One would use systematic desensitization to allow  students to mobilize their intelligence and learning in test situations and perform well.

Make use of professional services if your fears are interfering with normal life and work or do not yield to self-help procedures. A trained therapist could set up treatment using systematic desensitization along the following lines:

1.Make a list of scenes (events and thoughts) associated with test anxiety and rank them from low to high in terms of the amount of anxiety their trigger with two or three associated with ten levels of anxiety from #1 - lowest to #10 - highest.

2.Practice a set of relaxation skills with you until relaxation comes readily. The skills that I use are:

a)Tensing and relaxing 10 key muscle groups. Combine relaxing a muscle group with a self-talk cue like: "relax now."

b)Focusing awareness on breathing and doing full complete breaths. Combine a self-talk counting cue with breathing such as: "relax one,  &ldots;"

c)Picture a relaxing scene - imagined or real - with good associations. For example relaxing on a lounge chair on a Caribbean beach on a lovely warm day with sounds of the surf rolling. Combine this image with self-talk like: "I really enjoy this." "This is wonderful." "I feel so relaxed."

3.Alternate picturing the relaxing image (30 seconds) with scenes associated with test anxiety (15 seconds) beginning with those scenes that trigger the least amount of anxiety. Move on to higher ranked scenes when the initial scenes (level #1) produce little or no anxiety. Use the relaxation skills to stay in a state in which relaxation dominates over anxiety.