What Can We Learn From Habituation Psychology?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated July 22, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Horn, LMFT

What Is Habituation?

Habituation is what happens when someone is repeatedly exposed to a new stimulus. Basically, we get used to something the more we experience it, and we become desensitized to its effects. Habituation is a survival mechanism that happens in humans and animals, and by knowing what it is, we can use it to our advantage.

How Habituation Is Used

Habituation is used in therapy in many different ways, and here are just a few.

Treating Fears And Phobias

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No one likes dealing with their phobias. You’re deathly terrified of something that’s usually harmless, preventing you from living your life to the fullest. However, many phobias can be treated through habituation.

Let’s say you’re afraid of dogs. There is little reason to be afraid of dogs. Most are not going to hurt you. However, you’re scared of them. Maybe it’s because you were bitten as a child, or maybe it’s irrational. Regardless, the key to solving your fear may be gradual exposure. Here’s a plan that may be used to treat your dog’s phobia.

  • Look at pictures of dogs. Watch some dog videos.
  • Be exposed to a dog through a cage, such as going to a shelter.
  • Be exposed to a leashed dog out of a cage.
  • You pet a dog. The dog responds.

The idea is that your fear of dogs will go down as you’re exposed to them more. This can work for many things. If you’re afraid of heights, being exposed to different heights may treat it.

The time it takes for someone to get used to a stimulus will vary. Someone may be used to a stimulus after a few exposures. However, if you are terrified of something, it could take many exposures to relearn that behavior. If you are receiving therapy to get rid of your fears, it’s important to be patient. It will take a while to relearn your instinctive behaviors.

In Social Circles

Habituation happens in our daily social lives, too. When we first speak to a stranger, we may be fearful. This is a survival instinct. We are defending against something we are not familiar with. It can also be due to what we were taught as kids. Never talk to strangers is good advice, but when you have to talk to someone as an adult, what you were taught may make you hesitant.

The more you talk to someone, the more you let your guard down. You become less fearful of talking to them, and that’s usually a good thing. If you haven’t talked to a friend in a while, that desensitization may lessen, and you may be fearful again when you speak to them.

The best way to avoid feeling fearful when meeting new people is to talk to people regularly. Being more talkative to people, in general, can help you feel less defensive. With that said, a healthy amount of skepticism is important.

Habituation And Dog Training

Habituation occurs in nature quite often, and the best place to illustrate that is in the world of dog training. A dog trainer will use habituation and start young. They will be nice to puppies so that they are friendly towards people and aren’t aggressive.

This is why a feral domesticated animal, an animal that hasn’t been exposed to humans, is typically more aggressive. Most dogs you meet who have owners will be friendly. A dog who grew up in the wild may be fearful or aggressive of you.

Habituation can be used to introduce new pets to each other. Say you’re introducing a dog to a cat, or even another cat to a cat. There may be aggression because the new pet is unfamiliar, and they may see them as a threat. Someone may use habituation to keep the peace. For example, they may introduce the new pet’s scent to the old pet, then keep them in separate rooms. They may be able to see the animal from a distance, and over time, you can introduce each other supervised. After a while, the animals should be good friends. Or at least tolerate each other!

Habituation And Treating Depression

One of the ways depression is treated is through habituation. Someone who has depression may have fallen out of schedule, and this can make their depression worse. Also, a lack of exercise may be making their depression worse too.

Of course, depressed people can’t just get up and exercise. A counselor may use habituation to adjust to a routine slowly or introduce exercise into their daily regimen. This can help a depressed person to live a better life.

Habituation And Anxiety

When someone is going through an anxiety attack, a counselor may introduce habituation to calm herself down. It’s hard to breathe when you have a panic attack, but if a counselor has made you learn breathing techniques, you may use these techniques out of habit, and it can allow you to calm down easier and return to normal.

Habituation can be used to treat many mental disorders. Sometimes, your problems come about because you fell out of habit. A therapist can create a plan to get you back in the habit and live a good life uninhibited.

Habituation And Addiction Treatment

Habituation is how people become addicted to drugs. They are exposed to a drug and get a favorable reaction from it. After repeated usage, their response isn’t as good, and they may consume more to get that same initial response. This is how addictions are formed. A counselor who treats addiction may gradually get them off the drug by reducing the amount they take over time and introduce them to a life without drugs.

Of course, it’s hard to create new habits, and a counselor may use many different techniques to get someone into a new one. Here is a list of techniques a therapist may use.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy is when you challenge negative thoughts and replace them with realistic positive ones.
  • Someone may get rid of a bad habit by associating that habit with something negative.
  • Relaxation techniques. These are techniques that can help calm a person down. For example, breathing exercises. They can help calm down when they are in a dire moment, such as craving a pill. These can help a person relax and allow them to avoid their habit.
  • Guided imagery. This is when music, art, and words are used to create positivity. Someone may use guided imagery to associate breaking the habit with something more positive.
  • Group therapy. Sometimes, the best solution is to be in therapy with people going through the same problems as you are. This can allow for some creative solutions.

What Happens In The Brain?

You may wonder how the brain adjusts to habituation. Habituation occurs in most animals and even some plants, so you may wonder how it happens. How does the brain adapt to a pattern?

One area of the brain that is associated with habituation is the amygdala. This is a part of the brain associated with memory and emotional responses, especially anxiety and fear. Scientists have studied how it responds to fear. The amygdala responds to fearful expressions, and then it can change again if it sees a happy expression. It seems that as fear is gradually exposed, the amygdala adjusts its emotional response to it.

It should be noted that our brain is complex, and there are many things that we still don’t know about it. With that said, we do realize that our brains can adapt because of habituation. You can use habituation to your advantage and be able to live a better life as a result.

Seek Help!

Want To Learn How To Break A Habit, Or Adopt More Healthy Habits?

Getting rid of a bad habit is hard, and so is getting into a good habit. However, there is hope. One such way you can get back into a good habit, or vice versa, is through therapy. While you can do it alone, a professional who knows how your mind works can be quite useful, especially at creating plans tailored to your needs.

Don’t feel ashamed if you want to kick a habit or get into a good habit. This means you are willing to improve yourself, and that’s always the first step. So talk to a therapist today.

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