Joseph Wolpe on Systematic Desensitization
by Joseph Wolpe
In a fascinating discussion with Dr. Joseph Wolpe, he reveals how his experiences treating soldiers in World War II eventually led him to develop systematic desensitization as a treatment for anxiety and fear disorders. Wolpe offers viewers specific clinical advice about how and when to integrate cognitive therapy with behavior therapy techniques in the treatment of fear.
As a young medical doctor in South Africa, Joseph Wolpe encountered countless cases of “war neuroses” among injured WWII veterans. In this captivating interview, Wolpe describes his disenchantment with the psychoanalytic techniques that failed to ameliorate the soldiers’ pain, and his subsequent motivation to develop a therapy that would actually help them heal. Eventually he returned to school to develop systematic desensitization, one of the most effective and efficient treatments for anxiety and fear disorders currently known. Wolpe’s narrative of the experiments that culminated in the technique of systematic desensitization offers insight into its underlying mechanisms, and provides a strong foundation for the utilization of his techniques.

An influential force in psychotherapy for many decades, Wolpe offers a sobering assessment of the trajectory of the field, and practical suggestions on how to revitalize it. In reference to the popularity of cognitive approaches, Wolpe asserts, “If you confine yourself to cognitive methods, then you weaken your impact,” explaining that although cognitive therapy is sometimes appropriate, the clinician must assess the etiology of the client’s fears first. Here Wolpe provides specific clinical guidance in determining the best course of therapy based on case specifics. Describing his experience attempting EMDR with a client, Wolpe advises clinicians to keep an open mind about new treatments as they develop, even when the mechanism of change is yet unknown.