Joseph Wolpe: Biography of the inventor of systematic desensitization

The impact Joseph Wolpe has generated on behavior therapy has been stable and persistent. His dedication to the world of psychology lasted until almost a few months before his death, when he was still lecturing around the world.

Psychology and psychiatry owe to this prolific psychiatrist the current knowledge and the success of interventions and treatments for any type of phobia from a cognitive-behavioral point of view.

Below we will take a brief look at the life of this researcher through a biography of Joseph Wolpe.

    Who was Joseph Wolpe? brief biography

    Famous South African psychiatrist, Joseph Wolpe has succeeded in positioning himself as one of the most influential figures in behavior therapy.

    Born in South Africa in 1915, Wolpe spent his academic time at the University of the Witwatersrand. He then received a Ford scholarship for undergraduate studies, which gave him the opportunity to move for a year to Stanford University in the United States, where he was able to study psychology at the Center for Behavioral Sciences.

    After this year at Standford University, Wolpe returned to South Africa. However, in 1960 he would return to the United States after accepting a job at the University of Virginia, remaining there permanently.

    After five years in this institution, Wolpe accepted a position at Temple University in Philadelphia, Institution in which he will remain until 1988.

    Their involvement in the study of anxiety

    A milestone that forever marked Wolpe’s life and influenced him in his later work was his enlistment as a medic in the South African army. Wolpe’s main motivation in enlisting was to care for soldiers who, after returning from battle, they suffered from what was then called “war neurosis”. Currently, this condition is known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

    At the time, the intervention practiced on soldiers relied on the administration of a type of serum called “truth serum”, with the belief that openly speaking about traumatic experiences cured this type of neurosis. However, the treatment was rarely effective.

    This failure of results led Wolpe, a staunch supporter of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalytic theories, to question such interventions and start researching other treatment options.

    This shift in focus of his interests as a mental health professional led him to expand his work in the field of behavioral psychology. Their techniques of reciprocal inhibition, in particular systematic desensitizationIt is they who have earned him a place of honor in the history books of psychology.

    Joseph Wolpe died in the city of Los Angeles in 1997, at the age of 82.

      Wolpe’s contributions to psychology

      As mentioned above, Wolpe’s leap from analytical psychology to more cognitive-behavioral paradigms led him to make major changes and contributions in this field.

      Among these, the most important are the techniques of reciprocal inhibition and the famous systematic desensitization (DS). In reviewing the life and work of Joseph Wolpe, it is essential to be aware of this type of therapeutic resource, one of his main contributions to mental health.

      Reciprocal inhibition techniques

      In its quest for more effective interventions and treatments for psychiatric conditions, specifically for the treatment of anxiety; Wolpe developed his techniques of reciprocal inhibition, which were based on assertiveness training.

      Wolpe’s idea of ​​reciprocal inhibition was based on the generation in patients of feelings or responses incompatible with the feeling of anxiety, and thus reducing their levels.

      At the start of his research Wolpe used cats to which he offered food while presenting a conditioned fear stimulus, Using the act of eating as a means of inhibiting the anxiety response.

      After achieving good results with cats, Wolpe used reciprocal inhibition in his clients in the form of assertiveness training. The psychiatrist’s assumption was that a person was not able to be aggressive or to experience feelings of irritation or anger along with assertive feelings or behaviors.

      These assertiveness trainings were found to be particularly useful for patients who exhibited symptoms of anxiety before social situations or some kind of social phobia. However, these interventions have not had positive results in the face of another type of phobia.

      Following this failure to improve other phobias, Wolpe developed his most famous intervention protocol in psychology, systematic desensitization (DS). According to which, when a patient faces their fears directly, they can generate feelings of extreme frustration, so the best way to overcome them was to expose them gradually.

      Systematic desensitization

      Wolpe developed and perfected an action protocol for the treatment of phobias which he called systematic desensitization (DS).

      Systematic desensitization consists of presenting the patient, gradually, with a series of images or contexts in which he may experience some kind of phobia, While performing a series of relaxation exercises.

      Wolp’s main idea is that no one can feel relaxed and anxious at the same time, so relaxation would inhibit feelings of anxiety or fear that the patient experiences in relation to any object or situation.

      There are three steps or steps in this protocol, which must be performed after the clinician has done a comprehensive case formulation, or what Wolpe called “behavior analysis”.

      These steps of systematic desensitization are:

      1. First step: training in relaxation techniques

      Wolpe welcomed the muscle relaxation model proposed by Jacobson, By modifying it to make it a little shorter and more efficient.

      In this first step, the professional must teach the patient the relaxation techniques so that, later, he can perform them in the following stages of the treatment.

        2. Second step: create a hierarchy of anxieties

        In this second step, the therapist and the patient make a list with a series of situations or contexts that generate feelings of anxiety in the person, in any of its forms.

        They are then ranked or ranked starting with those with the lowest level of anxiety or stress to the one that causes the most fear in the patient.

        3. Third step: systematic desensitization

        The next and final step is for the patient to practice the relaxation exercises learned in the first one, causing him to relax completely. In the meantime, the clinician will show or tell about the different images taken in the previous step, starting with those who suffer the least from anxiety.

        Depending on the patient’s reaction, the patient will move on to the next higher quality image or the process will be repeated until the anxiety levels have decreased.

        Despite the possible failures that arise during the process, such as the order of the images is not correct or the patient is unable to relax, systematic desensitization has proven to be one of the most successful interventions in terms of treatment of phobias.

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