Reducing anxiety and fear with desensitisation


I read a lot of books, in particular fantasy, horror and science fiction and these types of books often tend to have quite a bit of blood and gore in them. I regularly recommend books to friends but on the odd occasion the recommendation hasn’t been well received because they’ve thought it too violent. So now before I recommend a book, I have to find out what their tolerance levels are first. Even with knowing that though, I’ve recommend a book that I thought was free of it only to find that they still found it a bit over the top. I don’t really notice it anymore, I guess you could say that I’ve become desensitised to it.

Being able to handle gory stories is not exactly life changing (although it does mean I’ve read some awesome books), however, you can see how desensitisation would be useful for people who experience anxiety, fears and phobias. Being desensitised to the situations and objects that they used to feel anxious about opens up a world of possibilities for them, enabling them to do things without feeling fearful or anxious anymore.

Systematic desensitisation is a specific technique devised by Wolpe (1961) which has been used extensively since then to help people with these issues. It is an empirically supported treatment, which means that it has had replicable, credible research carried out on it and has been found to be effective.

More research has been done on Wolpe’s technique of systematic desensitisation than any other psychotherapy method, consistently showing it to be one of the most efficacious therapies for phobias and other anxiety-related disorders. Fear and anxiety levels have been found to decrease significantly and improvements are still evident at least 6 months later. (Rothbaum, 2000; Lang, 1963)

Systematic desensitization is based on the idea that abnormal behaviour is learned. We become sensitized to situations, places or objects, becoming fearful of these things. When people are fearful of something, they tend to avoid it and this only serves to reinforce the fear.

Hypnosis makes systematic desensitisation easier for the client, utilising visual imagery of the feared situation rather than having to be placed in the situation. It means that we can work on reducing the fear and anxiety in the consulting room, a safe, relaxing environment, and can be done with more repetition, both within the session and at home in self-hypnosis. Hypnosis also brings a level of deep relaxation to the process of systematic desensitisation and provides added leverage to the treatment. (Dengrove, 1973)

With this technique I gradually desensitise my clients by gradual imagined exposure, increasing their self-control and bringing down the fear and anxiety, allowing them to experience those situations in reality in a calmer, controlled way. I use this in conjunction with other techniques to help relax, change unhelpful thoughts and beliefs related to the anxiety or phobia, and build confidence in their ability to do the things that they’ve been fearful or anxious of doing previously.

I use hypnotic desensitisation a lot in my practice as I specialise in anxiety-related issues and phobias. I have used this technique with a wide range of specific phobias such as fear of flying, public speaking, driving, and needles to name just a few. I have also used it with more general phobias such as social phobia and claustrophobia. It has also been very effective for people who struggle with noises whilst trying to drop off to sleep, blushing, and for those with persistent pain who fear that their activity will cause increased pain.

One of the main reasons I love this technique is because of the evidence base which supports it. My clients find it comforting to know that the techniques I use with them are "tried and tested" and can help them to reduce their anxiety and fear.


  • Debgrove, E. (1973) The uses of hypnosis in behaviour therapy. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 21:1, 13-17
  • Lang, P. J., & Lazovik, A. D. (1963). Experimental desensitization of phobia. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66(6), 519
  • Rothbaum, B. O., Hodges, L., Smith, S., Lee, J. H., & Price, L. (2000). A controlled study of virtual reality exposure therapy for the fear of flying. Journal of consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68(6), 1020.
  • Wolpe, J. (1961) The systematic desensitization of neuroses. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 132, 189-203