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Reciprocal Inhibition

Written by Dr.Mary


Reciprocal Inhibition is a theory that belongs to the field of behavioral therapy. This theory states that, if a person is presented at the same time with a stimulus that induces anxiety and one that diminishes anxiety, that person will benefit from reduced overall anxiety. Reciprocal inhibition is based on the idea that the introduction of a stimulus that diminishes anxiety weakens the link between the anxiety-producing stimulus and the anxiety per se. The best example of reciprocal inhibition is related to childbirth; women who are giving birth are encouraged to breathe regularly, as taking deep breaths seems to reduce both the pain and anxiety associated with childbirth.

In the field of physical therapy, reciprocal inhibition is a specific technique that is used in order to improve the range of motion and muscle contraction in different musculoskeletal conditions. This technique is based on the idea that the antagonist muscles are manipulated in a way that they stimulate the agonist muscles, which would have been otherwise painful or difficult to stretch.

Reciprocal Inhibition in Psychology

The application of reciprocal inhibition in psychology is based on the repeated practice of the desired behavior in the presence of the anxiety-producing stimulus (triggering the undesired response). Reciprocal inhibition is often used by psychologists with the purpose of treating different phobias – for example, a psychologist might decide to resort to reciprocal inhibition in a patient who has snake phobia. In this situation, the patient will be exposed to snakes on a repeated basis, during which he/she will practice the learned relaxation techniques.

The basic idea behind this theory is that, with enough repetition, the undesirable response can be discarded. Reciprocal inhibition is considered successful not only when the undesirable response has been learned, but also when the new desirable response has been established with a regular pattern. The person standing behind this theory is Joseph Wolpe, a psychologist who proposed reciprocal inhibition as a solution to treating anxiety disorders and various phobias. Even though his theory was received with skepticism at first, the successful results with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder proved its efficacy.

Wolpe proposed that the person suffering from anxiety/phobia should be exposed gradually to the anxiety-producing stimulus, while at the same practicing different relaxation or breathing techniques. He started to experiment his theory with cats, exposing them to a shock at the same time with a specific sound. The Pavlov reflex made the cats react with fear when hearing just as the sound, without the shock being actually present. The talented psychologist discovered then that the undesired fear response can be unlearned, when he associated the specific sound with food.

The efficiency of the reciprocal inhibition theory in psychology is based on the concept of reciprocal behaviors. Conform to the specialists in the field, the reciprocal behaviors are the ones that are in direct antithesis. For example, the relaxation behavior (relaxed skeletal muscles) is in direct antithesis with the stress response (‘fight or flight’, tense muscles). If the desired behavior is practiced within the anxiety-inducing triggers, it is believed that the stress response will be gradually reduced in intensity, until it is completely eliminated. It goes without saying that the stress response is the undesired behavior.

Reciprocal Inhibition vs Autogenic Inhibition

Reciprocal inhibition and autogenic inhibition have two very important things in common and that are the Golgi organ and the muscle spindle. These are actually proprioceptors, becoming activated when the contraction is inhibited in certain muscle groups. Located in the joints and around the muscle tendons, these proprioceptors are directly responsible maintaining the coordination of the different muscle groups, reacting to the slightest changes in muscle length and tension.

The Golgi organ is responsible for the identification of the muscle tension – thus, this small receptor can tell whether the muscle is contracted (shortened) or relaxed (stretched). The contraction of the muscle leads to the activation of the muscle – what happens is that the contraction is actually inhibited and the opposing muscle group becomes contracted (antagonist). All of the changes that were described above are part of the autogenic inhibition process.

By inhibiting the contraction of the agonist muscle, the Golgi organ actually allows for the muscle to stretch to a more extensive length and in an easier manner. The process of autogenic inhibition is characteristic for the passive stretches, performed in a static manner. By maintaining the stretch for a longer period of time, the tension in the muscle increased and the Golgi organ becomes activated, inhibiting the muscle spindle as well and allowing for the muscle to stretch even further.


The muscle spindle is also a proprioceptor, stretching at the same time with the muscle. The activation of the muscle spindle leads to the appearance of the stretch reflex, which is the contraction that occurs in the agonist muscle. At the same time, the antagonist muscle enters into a state of relaxation. All of these changes that were described here are part of the reciprocal inhibition process.

As opposed to autogenic inhibition, reciprocal inhibition is often encountered in stretches that are made in an active and dynamic manner. Simply put, in autogenic inhibition, the agonist muscles are relaxed, while the antagonist muscles are contracted. During reciprocal inhibition however, the agonist muscles are contracted, whereas the antagonist muscles are in a stage of relaxation.

Reciprocal Innervation

The process of reciprocal innervation is defined by the contraction of agonist muscle groups at the same time with the relaxation of antagonist muscle groups. This concept was proposed for the first time by René Descartes, who considered that reciprocal innervation is responsible for the synergy that exists between agonist and antagonist muscle groups. This theory is just as valid today as it was back them, with plenty of examples to support it. For example, the triceps muscle works with opposite forces than the biceps muscle – the basic idea is that, if the triceps muscle is relaxed, the biceps muscle is contracted with vice-versa.

It is reciprocal innervation that allows for a group of muscles to be relaxed while the other one is contracted. The nociceptive reflex is one of the best examples that could be offered – this reflex occurs when we are touching a harmful stimulus; it is an involuntary gesture based on the contraction of the flexing muscles and the relaxation of the extensors. For example, if you are touching something that is too hot with your hand, you will draw your arm closed to be body. For that movement to be possible, the flexor muscles will be contracted, while the extensors will enter into a state of relaxation.


reciprocal inhibitionReciprocal inhibition Picture 1 : When one muscle is contracted, its antagonist is automatically inhibited.

reciprocal inhibition pictures

Reciprocal inhibition Picture 2

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