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What is Desensitization Therapy?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Desensitization therapy may refer to two different types of treatments that might be suggested when people have reactions to substances or situations. One of these is considered a behavioral psychological method and the other is the province of allergists. In other words, one treats phobias and the other treats severe allergies. Both use gradual, incremental exposure to reduce severe reactions to these things.

When people discuss desensitization therapy as a means of treating phobias, they may also refer to this as exposure therapy. If a person has a significant fear of something like heights, flying, or leaving the home, a therapist could work with that person to gradually help him undergo extremely gentle and minimal experiences that help increase tolerance of the thing feared. Many different things can be employed, depending on the fear, including pictures, film, smell and others that allow the person to experience the fear in small increments. People do so with a therapist at their side, until they are ready to begin experimenting with some element of the fear on their own.

Another form of desensitization therapy is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). This is most often used to treat traumatic conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. As people recall memories of stress they may track something moving with their eyes. This form of therapy may relieve trauma, though others find traditional therapies more effective.

Just as the person recovering from a phobia or trauma benefits from professional help, the other form of desensitization therapy requires medical assistance, too. Instead of treating fears, this type of therapy treats life-threatening allergies. The two types of therapy bear some similarity to each other, since both use small doses of exposure to the fear or allergen, in order to gradually sensitize the mind or body to the phobia or allergen.

With allergies, in a protected environment, people would gradually undergo increasing exposures to a known allergen. This has to be done with great care, since it is quite possible to induce an anaphylactic reaction if dose is too great. To be very careful, doctors and other medical personnel are at the ready with medicines like epinephrine, should the body react to the substance administered.

Over time, tiny amounts of a substance given in allergic desensitization therapy may help end allergic reaction. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it is effective in enough cases that it may be recommended when people have severe allergies to a high number of substances. Danger or life-threatening reactions regularly may suggest trying this therapy because otherwise, a person may be unable to pursue a normal life due to constant fear of exposure to allergens.

With phobias/trauma and severe allergies, the ability to live a normal life may be restricted. In both cases, this therapy model may be of use in allowing people to pursue much more regular lifestyles. Phobia treatment can have an excellent rate of success and allergy treatment may have a good outcome. Each treatment is worth exploring when these problems are severe.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon995931 — On Jun 11, 2016

I am concerned about a patient who has experienced severe brain trauma, who has recovered remarkably, except left with severe anxiety while traveling in a car.

By mjar855 — On Feb 19, 2015

What is the relationship between desensitization and ED?

By christensen — On Feb 09, 2011

@ surfNturf: An uninsured person might pay that much for a visit, though there are many therapists who can use EMDR that don't charge anywhere close to the amount you mentioned. About $100-150 is more accurate. Also, in your example you use a soldier. Most soldiers have medical coverage through the Armed Services and this may continue even if they have left the services if they have experienced profound trauma.

By cafe41 — On Feb 08, 2011

SurfNTurf- I read somewhere that when a person experiences trauma the left side of their brain essentially shuts down.

This is the side of the brain that provides logic and order so as a result of the trauma all of the memories are stored in the rights side of the brain.

This creates a problem for the person suffering from the traumatic experience because the right side of the brain is always in the present mode so they relive their agony every day.

It also takes a trained therapist to create the right associations that will allow the patient to retell the traumatic events in an orderly fashion. Counseling therapy is required for the person to be able to deal with the trauma and all of the feelings that come with it.

By surfNturf — On Feb 08, 2011

I have heard of eye movement desensitization therapy in order to treat post traumatic stress disorder. The way that eye movement desensitization therapy works is by having the patient view images of the traumatic event and then in the background the therapist will offer different stimuli.

For example, a soldier might be looking at pictures of war and at the same time they will be listening to soft music. In addition, the therapist may interrupt the patient by tapping on their shoulder which will cause them to reprocess information in a more balanced way treating them of their traumatic memories.

These sessions are not cheap and can run about $300 a visit but it is viewed as one of the most recommended forms of therapy to treat people suffering from traumatic events.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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