This article is based on the research done by Joseph Wolpe attempting to understand the root of a type of Neuroses in the form of an intense Phobia. The article states that phobia’s were original thought to be the result of an individual experiencing an extreme childhood trauma that linked intense irrational fear to an object or act. They were treated by a process known as psychoanalysis, in which the patient worked through the source of the fear with a therapist. A phobia goes far beyond the rational fear of being afraid for your safety due to, for example, a spider being on your hand. In the case of a phobia the fear is taken to an irrational level and the individual afflicted can have a panic response to a spider in a glass case or a photo of a spider in a magazine, both of which present no threat to the patient.
Joseph Wolpe perfected a new method of treating phobias that involved stimulating the brain with an emotion other than fear in the presence of the subject’s fear stimuli. He had come to the conclusion that regardless of whether or not the phobia stemmed from a childhood trauma or another deep-seated issue the phobia was a learned response and could therefore be unlearned. In order to test his theory beyond animal trials Wolpe conducted a study on human subjects using deep relaxation as a distraction from the phobia in order to disassociate the subject with his or her fear. The first several sessions with Wolpe focused on teaching the subject the relaxation techniques with no fear stimuli involved. Then Wolpe and the subject developed a list of increasingly fear inducing objects or acts for the subject to work through. Wolpe talked the subject through the list of fear inducing acts by describing them in scenarios while the subject attempted to remain in the state of relaxation he had been taught earlier. If the subject started to feel anxious Wolpe stopped until he regained his previous state.
The results of the 39 cases that Wolpe reported were promising. Sixty eight phobias were treated in these 39 individuals and 35 of those who participated, with 62 total phobias, reported some level of success stemming from the treatments. Wolpe followed up with 25 of the 35 successful cases over the next fours and reported no relapses. He concluded that his method of desensitization had distinct benefits over psychoanalysis, including the fact that the patient could switch therapists without creating setbacks in his or her desensitization process.
Other professionals in the field of psychology criticized the results that Wolpe reported by stating that he was only masking the symptoms temporarily and not addressing the critical underlying issues that the patients had. They held to the more widely agreed upon diagnosis that patients displayed phobias due to a critical trauma from their past. Often this may be the root cause of a phobia and should be addressed, but subsequent studies have shown Wolpe’s method to be highly effective in helping a patient rid themselves of the symptoms associated with a phobia. One study conducted on college students in 1969 showed that patients suffering from anxiety disorders had nearly twice as much improvement when a desensitization method was used over psychoanalysis. Today Wolpe’s research is still studied and referenced by students and professionals. Due to his research and that of many others, desensitization is currently the most widely used method of treating phobias.
- Historically, which phobias are the hardest to treat using this method?
- Has this method of disassociating the patient with his fear been used effectively to treat other conditions?
Wolpe, J. "Relaxing Your Fears Away." Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases (1961): 180-203. Print.