Systematic Desensitization: When Anxiety is the Obstacle to your Client’s Goal - International Coaching Federation
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Systematic Desensitization: When Anxiety is the Obstacle to your Client’s Goal

Posted by Fanie Zis, PCC | August 23, 2022 | Comments (18)

Certain tasks or situations can create a lot of anxiety for clients, which can then become an obstacle to achieving their desired outcome. Anxiety around the scope of the goal, about what others will think, of success, failure, of letting themselves or others down.  

What happens?  

The client avoids and/or postpones the task or situation, which often reinforces the avoidant behavior, which then leads to further anxiety, and thus creates a vicious cycle and habit loop of procrastination.  

In this article, I explore a technique used in psychotherapy for anxiety disorders called Systematic Desensitization (Exposure and Response Therapy) and illustrate how understanding some of the basic concepts of this therapy can help you work with your client in helping them complete and carry out anxiety-inducing tasks and situations to reach their desired goal. 

What is Systematic Desensitization and How can it Help in Coaching Interactions? 

As a Coach, you likely already use some aspects of Systematic Desensitization. An example of this might be supporting a client to approach and face a challenge (exposing the client), that might be a part of a larger challenge (end goal), while they use relaxation and self-soothing techniques and your support along the way.  

Systematic Desensitization is a common psychological treatment geared toward helping those with anxiety disorders. In this treatment, the client is gradually exposed to the object or situation that makes them anxious or fearful, while  supporting them through various relaxation-based techniques. The goal is to help the client overcome the anxiety and/or fear that is preventing them from achieving their goal. (For more information on this type of therapy, refer to the American Psychological Association.

Note: A coaching interaction is not therapy, and the intent of this article is not that you practice this concept as a therapeutic technique. We are simply exploring the concept behind this technique and using its principles and our understanding thereof to help guide the coaching interaction as we facilitate the client’s progress toward a goal.  

Components of Systematic Desensitization in coaching can help a client who has clarity around their goal and displays a strong motivation to achieve it. The client should understand and acknowledge the task(s) and what needs to be overcome, all the while being aware that anxiety is the obstacle or interference. Here are some examples of what a client’s goal might be:   

  • Returning to work (or office) 
  • Having to give a presentation 
  • Writing a resume or website 
  • Addressing a major clean-up/decluttering project 
  • Learning to feel comfortable being alone 

Components of Systematic Desensitization  

The actual technique incorporated three processes. Again, we are not using this as a therapeutic technique, but instead as a concept that can be applied to coaching. 

1. Create a Hierarchy of Fears

In Coaching, this might be having the client create a list of steps that they have determined to take and rate their level of anxiety toward each step (can use an exposure hierarchy). You can use a 1-10 scaling method (where 10 is the most fear and 0 is the least).  

2. Establish relaxation techniques

This is where a client implements relaxation techniques before, during and after exposure. As a Coach you can ask your client about what techniques have worked for them in the past (i.e., deep breathing, listening to music, grounding techniques) and/or what they think may help them relax. Then ask them to select one method to try and see how it works. 

3. Gradual Exposure and Support

Have the client pick one step from their list (implementing gradual exposure) that they are ready and willing to take. This is often the step that induces the least amount of anxiety. If possible and desired, the client can do this step during a Coaching session so that you can explore and reflect on their experience in real time. Alternatively, they can do this outside of the coaching session, where you can recommend that the client journal their response, reactions, and experience and then reflect on this with you in the subsequent session. 

Important points to Consider

  • One step (exposure) at a time as to be determined by client 
  • A step (exposure) does not have to be a physical action, it can be a visualization, even a conversation 
  • A step (exposure) can be repeated until the client feels ready to move to the next step (unless there is a pressing deadline!) 
  • The client holds the agenda and is accountable and responsible for their actions and results.  
  • Challenge, but don’t push, and ask permission. The degree to which you use this will depend on your rapport and established coaching agreement.  
  • Ensure a strong ICF-based coaching agreement. You may want to include in your coaching agreement that you may bring in aspects of various tools and techniques into the appointment. Update the coaching agreement as/if necessary. 
  • Resistance is a natural part of the process in moving forward. Help the client distinguish between resistance and making a methodical decision to postpone or change their goal. 
  • There is a difference between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder. When in doubt, refer the client to appropriate healthcare services. 


  • What are your thoughts and experiences with Systematic Desensitization? 
  • Can you think of a time that you yourself may have used components of this technique to help a client or maybe yourself? 
  • How do you think understanding the mechanisms and concepts of this technique may help your clients, both as a Coach and on a personal level? 

Fanie Zis, PCC

Fanie Zis, PCC, CCDP, CWS, CES, CCS, comes from a background in psychology, counseling, and career development. She holds a PCC credential with ICF and is a certified career development practitioner with the BC Career Development Association. Fanie is currently enrolled in David Kessler's Grief Educator Certification program and is looking forward to continuing to coach clients in their grief and loss journey. Fanie works as a life smart coach for the employee and family assistance program through Homewood Health in the areas of career coaching, career counseling, relationship coaching, family support, grief and loss, stress management, and pre-retirement planning. Fanie also works as a freelance life and career coach, supporting clients through personal and professional development and life enhancement processesReach Fanie at

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Additionally, for the purpose of full disclosure and as a disclaimer of liability, this content was possibly generated using the assistance of an AI program. Its contents, either in whole or in part, have been reviewed and revised by a human. Nevertheless, the reader/user is responsible for verifying the information presented and should not rely upon this article or post as providing any specific professional advice or counsel. Its contents are provided “as is,” and ICF makes no representations or warranties as to its accuracy or completeness and to the fullest extent permitted by applicable law specifically disclaims any and all liability for any damages or injuries resulting from use of or reliance thereupon.

Comments (18)

  1. SocialDBT says:

    I’m happy that you have come up with these tips that might help everyone that needs assistance, especially those who are now dealing with anxiety. I appreciate you sharing this interesting and wonderful information, and also, for taking the time to share this great article.

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  5. Great post! and incredible blog! Very helpful post! I must say. Simple & interesting. Wonderful work!

  6. I’m very exciting checking your articles and must say that I love the systematic desensitization idea. Thank you very much for sharing and caring.
    Sorry my English errors. I’m from Brazil! =]

    • says:

      Thank you so much for your time in reading my article, kind words and support and hope it can be of use to you:)! It is a very interesting area to explore!
      Muito obrigado pelo seu tempo lendo meu artigo, palavras gentis e apoio e espero que possa ser útil para você :)! É uma área muito interessante para explorar!
      I used google translate:)

  7. As in our sitiuation here in Sudan and when the issue related to security and the scope of sefety of your suervival survival In Coaching and Alternatively positive guiding techniques this is the point which maks yuge anxicty will be different . I appreciate you sharing this interesting and wonderful information, waiting to studies more and I am willing to become part ofthe training in the future as great system.

  8. Anxiety is a formidable foe. It creeps in uninvited and takes root, hindering progress and dulling ambition. But make no mistake, it is conquerable. As a guide, you must be steadfast, patient, and empathetic. Your client’s goal may seem distant, but with perseverance and a steady hand, it can be reached. Encourage them to take small steps and celebrate each victory. And always remember, the path to success is not always a straight line. Anxiety may be the obstacle, but it will not be the end. Stay the course, and the prize will be theirs.

  9. says:

    Very interesting article, I love the concept around Systematic Desensitization. One thing where I anticipate I would struggle is around the relaxation techniques and especially not go into recommendation mode. In a situation where the client is not knowledgeable around relaxation techniques, besides asking what worked and what didn’t, what else they may try, what other questions can bring awareness for client around new ways of relaxation? Thank you !

    • Fanie says:

      That is a great question:) If your client is not knowledge with relaxation techniques (and yes, always ask the client-you can evoke further awareness by asking them to go to a time when they felt very relaxed-what were they doing? what were they feeling?)..
      If the client is not sure and you do have the knowledge, then as a Coach you can go ahead and ask the client if they have your permission to share some techniques. Providing some psychoeducation and knowledge is not the same as recommending. You can share some resources with the client and then ask them to what they would like to do with this (i.e they may come up with picking 1 technique to try out as a HW assignment). Although we do not prescribe or want to tell the client what to do, sharing knowledge that the client does not have that would assist them in reaching their goal, is part of coaching:) I just always ask permission first:). The client is still in control of what they want to do with that knowledge.
      I hope this helps! ?

  10. says:

    Very helpful, thank you very much!

  11. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this blog! It’s clear that the author is passionate about what they do, and their expertise shines through in this post. I’ve already bookmarked this site and look forward to diving into more of their content.

  12. Arlin says:

    Great post! I’ve often wondered why coaches can’t be trained in and offer these techniques. The blurry line between coaching and therapy sometimes seems to be only a matter of education and oversight.

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