Behavioural Approach To Treating Phobias (Psychopathology)

Treatment 1: Systematic Desensitisation 

Systematic desensitisation employs reverse counter-conditioning, aiming to unlearn maladaptive responses to a situation or object by eliciting an alternative response, namely relaxation. The therapy comprises three crucial components:

  • Fear Hierarchy: The client and therapist collaboratively establish a fear hierarchy, ranking the phobic situations from least to most terrifying.
  • Relaxation Training: Individuals are taught relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, or mental imagery.
  • Reciprocal Inhibition: The final step involves exposing the patient to their phobic situation while in a relaxed state.

According to systematic desensitisation, the theory of reciprocal inhibition suggests that two emotional states cannot coexist simultaneously. As a result, the goal is for relaxation to supersede fear. The patient starts at the lowest level of the fear hierarchy, progressing to the next level when they can remain relaxed in the presence of the stimulus. The patient continues this process until they can stay completely relaxed in the most feared situation, marking the success of systematic desensitisation.

Evaluation of Systematic Desensitisation (A03)

+Supporting Study= McGrath et al. (1990) discovered that 75% of patients with phobias were successfully treated using systematic desensitisation, specifically with in vivo techniques. This indicates the effectiveness of systematic desensitisation in treating phobias.

— Appropriateness= Systematic desensitisation is not effective in treating all phobias. Patients with phobias that have not arisen from personal experiences, such as a fear of heights developed through classical conditioning, are not successfully treated using systematic desensitisation. Some psychologists argue that specific phobias, like the fear of heights, may have an evolutionary survival benefit rather than stemming from personal experiences but are a result of evolution. These phobias underscore a limitation of systematic desensitisation, particularly its ineffectiveness in treating evolutionary phobias.

Treatment 2: Flooding 

A more intense form of behavioural therapy is flooding. Instead of gradually exposing an individual to their phobic stimulus, flooding involves immediate exposure to the most frightening situation.

For instance, someone with a dog phobia would be placed in a room with a dog and asked to stroke the dog right away.

With flooding, individuals cannot avoid their phobia (and negatively reinforce it), and through continuous exposure, anxiety levels decrease.

Flooding can take one of two forms:

  • In vivo (actual exposure): Direct exposure to the feared situation.
  • In vitro (imaginary exposure): Imagined exposure.

Patients are taught relaxation techniques, and these techniques are then applied to the most feared situation either through direct exposure or imagined exposure.

Evaluation of Flooding (A03)

+Practical Applications (Practicality)= An advantage of flooding lies in its cost-effective nature as a treatment for phobias. Research, such as that by Ougrin in 2011, has indicated that flooding is on par with other treatments like systematic desensitisation and cognitive therapies, but it is notably quicker. This efficiency is a strength because it allows for a speedier treatment of patients, presenting a more cost-effective option for health service providers.

— Ethical Issues= Even though flooding is seen as an affordable option, it can be very distressing for patients and causes a lot of worry. While patients give their consent with full knowledge, a significant number don't finish their treatment due to the overwhelming stress involved. Consequently, flooding can be ineffective and a waste of time and money if patients don't complete their therapy.


Now have a go at the revision quiz below to see how much you can recall.

Behavioural Approach Quiz

1.) What is the primary goal of systematic desensitisation in treating phobias?

2.) What is the first step in systematic desensitisation?

3.) Which component of systematic desensitisation involves exposing the patient to their phobic situation while in a relaxed state?

4.) According to systematic desensitisation, why is the goal for relaxation to supersede fear?

5.) What did McGrath et al. (1990) discover regarding the effectiveness of systematic desensitisation?

6.) In which situations is systematic desensitisation not effective, according to the appropriateness critique?

7.) What is the primary advantage of flooding as a treatment for phobias?

8.) In flooding, what does in vivo exposure refer to?

9.) What type of exposure does flooding involve that is not present in systematic desensitisation?

10.) According to Ougrin's research (2011), what is a notable strength of flooding compared to other treatments?

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