Most of our fears, anxieties and phobias are conditioned responses, which means we are not born being afraid of spiders or having public speaking anxiety. Over time, we learn to associate certain objects or situations with feelings of anxiety and it is usually a result of traumas or negative experiences.
Naturally, fears are meant to protect us and have an adaptive role in our lives. But often enough we associate feelings of anxiety and fear with stimuli that are harmless and end up developing a conditioned response of fear.
The part of the brain that controls anxiety and fear is amygdala. It tries to protect us from offensive stimuli by setting off the fear alarm. Desensitization technique makes the amygdala less sensitive to certain anxiety triggers. This type of treatment can be used for different types of triggers by making us learn, through experience (exposure), that something is not really dangerous.
Through desensitization, patients learn to develop a new automatic response to a triggering situation. It means that they will still be able to detect the trigger, but their reaction will be weaker and less lasting than it was before the therapy.
How Is It Done?
Desensitization can be done with the help of a therapist or by yourself. This technique includes 3 main steps that should be properly followed to achieve the wanted result. The first step is ranking your anxiety/fear triggers by creating a list from the least disturbing situations to the most disturbing. The second step is learning relaxation techniques that help your mind and body deeply relax. The last step is the desensitization session itself, where you combine your ability to relax with those situations that cause you anxiety and fear. The exposure to the trigger is done gradually, through several sessions.
A Detailed Guide on How to Go Through Desensitization by Yourself
Before trying this method, you should first of all ask yourself whether you know what exactly triggers your anxiety or not. Determine what is the exact object or situation that activates the anxiety/fear response within you and evaluate the impact it has on your life. You might find out that you avoid certain situations and therefore miss opportunities because of your anxiety. In this case, you should have no doubt about trying desensitization technique.
1. Anxiety Hierarchy
Choose a single trigger that interferes with your daily life and write down all the situations in which you experience anxiety because of it. Try to come up with as many variations as you can and then select from the list the most relevant ones. If you find it difficult to write variations to the same anxiety trigger, you can try listing the variables that interfere with your anxiety.
It is recommended to keep between 5-10 triggering situations on your list. You can extend it, but try to limit yourself at 15 items, as more than that is usually impractical and will take too much time.
When creating the list, remember to place the least disturbing situation at the top and the most disturbing at the bottom. Rank your anxiety for each situation, using a scale from 0-10 or 10-100. You can use SUDS to measure your anxiety level more precisely.
Sample Hierarchy for Public Speaking Anxiety (Ranking from 1 to 10)
|Performing a speech in front of my family members||1|
|Speaking in front of my close friends||3|
|Speaking in front of the class, using a prepared speech||4|
|Speaking in front of the class about an unknown topic||7|
|Speaking in front of a large audience, knowing that my speech is being evaluated||9|
2. Deep Muscle Relaxation
Learning how to achieve relaxation at will is the key element of the desensitization technique. By replacing the anxiety with feelings of calm and relaxation, you will be able to change your automatic response to anxiety triggers.
Spend at least 2 sessions of 20 minutes before moving to the last step of desensitization. Usually, 2 sessions of progressive muscle relaxation should be enough to learn how quickly and deeply to relax your body. You can use the PMR training from the videos below or you can find your own comfortable guide.
3. The Desensitization Sessions
The last step of this method combines the first two steps, by using gradual exposure to triggers. After learning how to deeply relax, you will go (imaginary) through the disturbing situations on your list. Starting from the least triggering situation, you should imagine yourself being in that situation. By gradually exposing yourself to disturbing stimuli, your mind and body will become familiar with the experience and will stop considering it dangerous.
Find yourself a quiet space, where you will not be disturbed , to make sure that you can complete each session properly. Imagine a certain triggering situation in details and try to imagine it as being as realistic as possible. Be aware of your sensations and keep your attention focused on the trigger. You should expose yourself to a situation until you feel completely relaxed and have no sense of tension at all. Proceed to the next triggering situation on your list when you are fully desensitized to the previous.
Don’ t try to expose yourself to more than one item in a session and always start the session with the previous item on your list. In this way you will be able to tell if you feel nervous or anxious and whether you can proceed to the next.
During each session, stop after the first 4 minutes and determine your anxiety level, then reestablish relaxation. Stop for at least 2 times per session to evaluate your well being and anxiety level.
Keep track of your progress and don’t force your recovery. Take one step at a time and search for help if needed. If you suffer from severe anxiety or simply don’t trust trying this method by yourself, ask for help from an expert.