In the early 1950s, this South African psychiatrist became dissatisfied with the poor therapeutic results he was getting from treating his patients with psychoanalysis. But, at that time there was no credible alternative psychotherapy in South Africa. So, as a psycho-therapeutic rebellion, Wolpe combined his medical training with his understanding of behavioral learning theory and made these two important achievements: (1) He created a medically credible, non-Freudian hypothesis of the origin of neurotic fears. (2) He formulated behavioral maneuvers for treating those neurotic fears. Wolpe's behavioral treatment maneuvers were a major contribution to the beginning of behavior therapy as a recognized field of human behavioral research and systematic, mental and emotional health improvement.
Wolpe's most popular treatment maneuver was called systematic desensitization. It is a combination of deep muscular relaxation and an effective technique of emotive imagery. The latter had been formulated and tested by Arnold A. Lazarus, then a psychologist, student/colleague of Wolpe and later a behavior therapist of international acclaim. A typical treatment session is an hour in which patient/clients first self-induce a state of deep muscle relaxation, followed by the therapist verbally pacing them in imagining events on a prepared list of feared objects or events. Starting with the least fearful event, patient/ clients are to maintain their initial state of deep muscular relaxation as the therapist verbally paces them up the list to the target fear. If, however, the patient/ client becomes noticeably anxious during the session, he or she is to terminate that imagery and focus on reestablishing their former relaxed state before resuming those images.
Wolpe quickly surprised the psychiatric field with his demonstrations of the rapid effectiveness of his behavioral treatment maneuvers. He also reported the largest number of human cases that had ever been successfully treated by one therapist. Prior to Wolpe's report behaviorists had annually reported less that three such successfully treated cases.
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