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Systematic desensitization (SD) is a behavioral treatment for the cessation of fear, anxiety, and phobias. Developed by South African–born psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe, SD is based on the premise that fear, anxiety, and phobias are learned responses and, therefore, can be unlearned. Reaching peak popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, SD treatment has been declining in recent years despite its continued success when applied in a clinical setting, being replaced by first-line pharmacological options such as short-acting anxiolytics (i.e., antianxiety medications) and a more cognitive, less behavioral clinical approach. The decline has also been largely attributable to the lack of clinical training in behavioral methods since the 1990s.

Early Roots

Wolpe’s behavioral underpinnings began early in his career when working as a medical officer in a military ...

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