Systematic Desensitization

Recovering from addiction can seem like a never-ending process made up of minuscule baby steps. With the risk of relapse looming about, finding a way to harness your motivation to live a sober lifestyle can be draining. Systematic desensitization is a form of behavioral therapy that helps you stay focused on the things that matter most. By redirecting negative self-talk and feelings of inadequacy, desensitization therapy enables you to work through the core issues that threaten your progress in recovery.

How Self-Talk Affects the Recovery Process

Everybody engages in self-talk, usually inside their heads. While not always conscious that it’s happening, the things we tell ourselves about ourselves influence how we feel and behave. For someone in recovery, examples of self-talk may take the form of:

  • “I can’t handle this without a drink.”
  • “I’ll never be able to stop using. It’s too hard.”
  • “I’m a big screw-up so why bother.”

Repeating negative messages to yourself not only works against your efforts in recovery but also paves a path to relapse. Over time, negative self-talk starts to shape your outlook on yourself, your circumstances, and how you see the world around you. Systematic desensitization therapy helps realign your purpose and your focus in recovery.

Systematic Desensitization and Addiction Recovery

Addiction takes root inside the mind, shaping your thoughts and desires, which drive your behaviors. This “state” of mind also comes with its own belief systems and thought patterns that work to keep the addiction alive. This mindset can continue long after substance use disorder stops. This means you can still think like an addict even though you don’t use drugs anymore.

When left to its own devices, addiction-based thinking can breed all types of problems in your day-to-day life; problems that bring you closer and closer to a relapse episode. Here are a few issues you may encounter:

  • Feelings of depression
  • Lack of motivation
  • Feelings of anxiety
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Inability to enjoy or appreciate little successes along the way

Addiction recovery also takes place inside your mind as you learn to cope and enjoy your life without the need for drugs or alcohol. This is where systematic desensitization therapy can help.

Take The First Step Towards Recovery

Talk to a Intake Coordinator

  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

How Does Systematic Desensitization Work?

Systematic desensitization gradually exposes you to anxiety-provoking situations until you become comfortable with them. As you through it, you’re prompted to focus on something happy or calming. By combining an anxiety-ridden situation with a response that contradicts the emotions you’d typically feel, you become more comfortable with the experience over time.

At the start, your therapist will go over each step involved in the process. To be effective, systematic desensitization therapy requires a minimum of five sessions or until you no longer experience a negative reaction to the situations you’re addressing in therapy. Overall, the process involves three basic steps that help you become more comfortable.

Here’s a brief overview of the systematic desensitization steps along with what happens at each step of the process:

Step One – Relaxation Skills

Learning how to enter into a relaxed state at will marks the first step in systematic desensitization therapy. Patients learn different relaxation techniques in preparation for the next steps in the process. The different types of techniques used may include:

  • Deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness techniques
  • Visualization
  • Muscle relaxation

In general, stress has been found to be a known risk factor in developing addiction and increasing the likelihood of relapse. Drug withdrawal states, in particular, can be the source of considerable emotional stress. Considering how many people recovering from chronic substance use disorder problems experience residual withdrawal effects well into recovery, relaxation skills can prove invaluable in warding off drug-using urges. They can be used to counteract the feelings of stress or anxiety that surface in everyday life.

Step Two – Make an Anxiety Hierarchy

An anxiety hierarchy is designed to map out different degrees of exposure to a particular situation. It involves you and your therapist creating a hierarchy or scale that lists the different degrees of anxiety you feel when confronting a certain situation. The scale ranges from 1 to 10 with 1 being the least anxiety-producing and 10 being the most anxiety-producing. For example, attending a social gathering where everyone’s drinking would rank 9 on the scale while watching a social gathering where everyone’s drinking on television would rank around 1 or 2.

Along with identifying different exposure levels, an anxiety hierarchy may include a system that rewards you for progress made along the way. Your therapist may also have you create a motivation checklist that lays out why its important to work through your fears. Preparing for unexpected events as you progress through different levels of exposure is also a good idea.

Step Three – Graduated Exposure to Fears

Step three is where you’re gradually exposed to the different anxiety levels listed in the hierarchy. This can be done in two ways: through visualization and actually experiencing the situation. Working from level 1 on the hierarchy scale to level 10, you apply the relaxation techniques learned in step one at each level. Progress up the scale only occurs as you feel more comfortable at each level.

A Powerful Tool in Addiction Recovery

While addiction recovery is a process, growth and change happen inside the situations you face each day. Ultimately, how you manage uncomfortable interactions and emotions determines how well you progress in recovery. Systematic desensitization equips you with the coping skills needed to work through the issues that most threaten your sobriety. When used as part of a recovery program, the process of growth and change becomes more clear as you continue to work the systematic desensitization steps.


Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

Sunshine Behavioral Health Facilities


Chapters Capistrano


Monarch Shores


Mountain Springs


Willow Springs


Lincoln Recovery

Find out more about our admissions process