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Desensitization - An Effective Treatment for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

written by: Jacqueline Chinappi • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 10/30/2010

Obsessive compulsive disorder can be treated by exposing the patient to the known fear through desensitization. The exposure is gradual and takes time but is proven to be effective when done correctly.

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    What Is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Desensitization?

    Patients who suffer from OCD show signs of obsessions and compulsions. The obsessions are the anxiety provoking thoughts which are brought on by fears and the compulsions are the actions which may accompany these obsessions. For instance a patient may show symptoms of anxiousness and fear public bathrooms and germs.

    Desensitization therapy is a type of cognitive behavioral therapeutic approach. It is a form of exposure therapy, where the mental health professional will slowly and steadily expose the patient to his or her fears.

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    Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Desensitization: Approaches

    Desensitization therapy comes in two forms when treating obsessive compulsive disorder. These approaches include:

    • In vivo exposure: Patient is exposed to stimuli in real life situations and experiences. For instance, the mental health professional will actually take the patient to a public restroom.
    • Imaginal exposure: Patient is exposed to stimuli through imaginary situations. For instance the patient imagines the stimuli during a therapy session. Systematic desensitization occurs when the treatment includes imaginary exposure along with relaxation techniques.

    Treatment can be delivered in several ways including:

    • Self-exposure: This type of exposure occurs when patient directly exposes him or herself to the stimuli.
    • Therapist-assisted exposure: This type of exposure occurs with the help of the mental health professional.
    • Group exposure: This kind of exposure occurs in group therapy settings.

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    How It Works?

    A patient diagnosed with (OCD) Obsessive Compulsive Disorder suffers from obsessions, compulsions, and anxiety provoking thoughts. The maladaptive thinking patterns (obsessions) in turn become unhealthy actions and behaviors (compulsions). When treating a patient suffering from OCD with desensitization therapy, the mental health professional not only uses exposure but also utilizes response prevention. The response prevention works to decrease the compulsions.

    Let us evaluate an example of someone who has anxiety about germs and therefore has the need to continuously wash their hands when they feel they have “too many germs".

    • The patient is exposed to germs (the germs are the obsessions which makes the patient anxious)
    • Response prevention is then used to help decrease hand washing (the hand washing is the compulsive behavior which occurs after the obsession is stimulated)
    • Response prevention is when the patient refuses to take part in their unhealthy compulsions, which in this situation is compulsive handwashing.

    The treatment in this situation (fear of germs/compulsive hand washing) would look like this:

    • Patient is exposed to germs then even though the patient is anxious about the germs, he or she will refuse to wash their hands. This is conditioning the patient to think more realistically and to decrease unhealthy behaviors.
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    Warnings:

    A patient should not be treated with obsessive compulsive behavior desensitization until they have practiced not only relaxation methods but also coping skills. The patient should also display these skills to their therapist. If desensitization is attempted without prior knowledge of relaxation techniques and coping mechanisms, then the treatment may not only be unsuccessful but it may also prove to be harmful. During the exposure the patient may get stressed out or feel anxious about the stimuli. The patient may acquire additional distress during this type of treatment and this is why the patient should have a relaxation method or coping skill to turn to.

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    References:

    Psych Central. (2010). Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Treatment. Retrieved from, http://psychcentral.com/disorders/sx25t.htm.

    University of Maryland Medical Center. (2010). Anxiety disorders: Psychotherapy and other treatments. Retrieved from, http://www.umm.edu/patiented/articles/what_psychotherapeutic_other_non-drug_approaches_anxiety_disorder_000028_8.htm

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