Theories In Action

Pavlov's rigorous scientific method, innovative experimentation techniques, and aseptic (sanitary) laboratory environment revolutionized the way animal research was performed; many of his methods remain in widespread use today. Pavlovian conditioning continues to be a methodological and conceptual foundation for psychological research and learning theory—the benchmark by which behavioral animal experiments are designed.

Behavioral therapy, which emerged in the 1950s, also owes a tremendous debt to Pavlov's theories of conditioning. The concept of conditioning gave psychologists a way to uncover the etiology, or causes, behind certain phobias and neuroses. Pavlov's theories on experimental neuroses have also laid the foundation for modern behavioral-based treatment of psychiatric disorders such as panic and anxiety disorders and phobias. Behavioral therapy is based on the concept of replacing undesirable or maladaptive conditioned responses (such as irrational fear) with a positive and appropriate conditioned response (such as relaxation). Gradually, the positive response should replace or extinguish the maladaptive one. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), an offshoot of behavioral therapy, also uses behavioral techniques supplemented by an increased awareness of the causes behind the maladaptive behavior.

The behavioral-based treatment method of systematic desensitization—the process of eliminating fear or anxiety by gradual and constant exposure to the source of fear—is rooted in Pavlov's findings that learned conditioned behaviors could also be extinguished, or unlearned. The technique was developed by psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe in the 1950s. Relaxation exercises are usually used as part of systematic desensitization techniques to further eliminate feelings of anxiety by introducing a substitute conditioned stimulus to associate with the source of the fear. For example, someone who is afraid of the water can overcome the fear by gradual exposure to a pool coupled with deep muscle relaxation techniques. Each time the person enters the pool and does not experience something terrible, the learned association between water and bad feelings is eroded.

Aversive therapy is another offshoot of Pavlovian theory. It involves pairing a highly negative stimulus with a harmful stimulus to eliminate a maladaptive behavior. Aversive therapy is used frequently in the treatment of alcoholism. One form of aversive therapy is the use of disulfarim (Antabuse), a drug that triggers extreme nausea and vomiting when combined with alcohol. In a technique called "taste aversion therapy," an individual may be put through several sessions at which they are given the drug and then given alcohol to smell and drink, making them ill. More frequently, the drug is prescribed to individuals that are newly recovering alcoholics as a prophylactic to prevent relapse.

Stimulus control therapy (SCT), commonly used in treating sleep disorders, is also based in classical conditioning theory and is a form of counter-conditioning. This treatment is based on the idea that insomnia is actually a self-perpetuating learned response that is caused by an individual's association of their bedroom with sleeplessness and anxiety. In SCT, the sleep environment is carefully controlled— the individual is instructed to leave the room for a period of time when they are unable to sleep, to have a fixed waking time each day, and to avoid any activities in the bedroom that aren't related to sleep or sex.

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Getting to Know Anxiety

Getting to Know Anxiety

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