Hypnosis and Systematic Desensitization – Does It Work?

Systematic desensitization… it’s long been used to help people overcome their fears and phobias. But what is it, and how does hypnosis make it more effective?

Most people who have developed a fear of something have had an initial traumatic experience that started it all off. But not everyone who has a traumatic experience develops a phobia about whatever was involved.

Let’s take the example of bees. Person A is stung at the age of 6. It’s painful and unpleasant, but with the appropriate treatment the trauma is soon over, the pain fades. It’s explained that the bee was only trying to protect itself or its home; that it stung because it was frightened. Child A grows up not particularly enthralled with bees, but not particularly afraid of them.

In contrast, person B has never been stung. Several times in her childhood she sees her mother reacting in panic to the presence of bees. She doesn’t know until much later that her grandmother had a severe allergy to bee venom, which had left her mother with a deep-rooted fear of bees.

Seeing her mother panic makes child B panic too, and she grows up with a real phobia of being anywhere near bees. It reaches the stage where she will barely go outdoors during the late spring and summer.

What Is Systematic Desensitization

The problem is that the more the person avoids the thing they fear, the more firmly established the fear becomes. They are not getting the chance to overlay their fear with different memories or experiences. The only thing they associate with that object is fear.

Systematic desensitization redresses the balance, by making the person gradually get closer to the thing they fear, so that they steadily build up a bank of experiences where they have allowed the object of their fears to come closer, with nothing bad happening.

Clearly this can take a long time, as they slowly and gradually try to increase their level of contact with the thing they fear.

So where does hypnosis come into it?

Well, for one thing, not all objects of fear are easy to come by. Nor are they necessarily predictable in their behavior. If a psychotherapist specializes in helping people with phobias, where are they going to get the bees to help person 1, the spider(s) for person 2, the lightning storm for person 3, the clown mask for person 4, a variety of dogs for person 5…. You get the idea. And even if the therapist does somehow manage to source the necessary objects, how can they be sure that those things will behave in the way they need them to?

You’ve probably heard me say this many times before, but one of the greatest gifts to a hypnotist is the fact that the unconscious mind can’t tell the difference between a real experience and one we have vividly imagined. Suddenly systematic desensitization becomes something we can completely control.

Through hypnosis, we can create a situation where the client comes into contact with the object of their fears in exactly the way they need to.

We can ensure that the object of their fears behaves in exactly the way we need it to, so that they can overlay their fearful experiences with relaxed, confident and harmless ones. In imagination they can approach or experience the thing they fear, while maintaining a calm and relaxed state of mind. They don’t have to wait until they happen to encounter the thing they’re trying to overcome.

Systematic Desensitization Can Work

When I’ve used systematic desensitization through hypnosis with phobic clients, many of them have been extremely doubtful that it will help. After all, if you’re truly terrified of something it’s difficult to see how lying down, relaxing and imagining something can possibly make the slightest difference!

However, without fail they’re amazed to find how real a well-constructed visualization feels.

The success of the technique depends on getting lots of information about the way they usually feel and react when faced with the object they fear, and your ability to create really powerful visualizations (see my article on making visualizations more powerful for help with this).

The results can be astounding, and incredibly rewarding. And the great thing about using hypnosis is that it doesn’t matter how weird, wonderful, rare or expensive the thing they fear is – you can provide exactly what they need, whenever they need it!

If you’re interested in learning more about systematic desensitization, keep an eye out for a future article where I’ll look at just how we go about making it work.