Flooding Therapy (Psychology Definition + Explanation)

Think about your worst fear. Maybe it’s spiders. Or heights. Or public speaking. Maybe this fear doesn’t interfere with your ability to do your job well or live a normal life. If it does, it may be considered a “phobia.” This is a word used to describe extreme or irrational fears. Often, these fears interfere with a person’s ability to go about their day as normal. 

So what do you do? 

There are many approaches to overcoming phobias. In this video, I’m going to talk about one of the more extreme approaches. It’s called flooding therapy, and it involves a deep dive into the things that scare you the most. 

What Is Flooding Therapy? 

Flooding therapy is just one type of exposure therapy used by professionals to help patients confront their fears. During any type of exposure therapy, the patient is exposed to the thing that scares them the most. Someone with a fear of snakes may be shown pictures of snakes.

Another example of flooding therapy is a “mock funeral”: a person with a fear of death may attend a mock funeral for themselves as a form of exposure therapy. A mock funeral and a picture of a snake are clearly on two different ends of the spectrum. Exposure therapy may involve more or less extreme versions of exposure, depending on the type of therapy being used and the condition of the patient. 

young girl facing her fear of death

Flooding therapy exposes the patient to their phobia, in all its glory, for a 2-3 hour session. This is one of the most extreme versions of exposure therapy. 

Examples of Flooding Therapy

The session will vary depending on the patient’s phobia. Some examples of flooding therapy include: 

  • Placing someone with claustrophobia in a crowded room for two hours
  • Putting someone with a fear of planes on a plane for a three-hour trip 
  • Leaving someone with a fear of snakes in a room with a snake (and telling the person they have to pet it) 

How Does Flooding Therapy Help Patients?

For someone with a phobia, this can sound like a nightmare. But to someone who doesn’t have that fear, any of the above tasks don’t sound too awful. None of the scenarios are life-threatening (if a professional snake handler is nearby!) 

woman feeling anxious while sitting in a plane

Previously, the stimuli (the snake, flight, etc.) was associated in the patient’s mind with fear and overwhelming emotions. Flooding therapy offers an alternative. Now, the patient is exposed to the stimuli and new associations can be made. Over a long stretch of time, the patient’s mind will start to replace the old associations with the new. The next time the patient is confronted with their former fear, they no longer associate it with bad memories or scary emotions. 

How Long Does Flooding Therapy Take?

Patients may be exposed during a 2-3 hour session. At some point, the patient will become exhausted. They don’t have the energy to be anxious anymore, and progress will begin. But the amount of sessions required for a patient to recover will vary. 

How Therapists Use Flooding Therapy to Treat Mental Disorders

Flooding therapy is not just beneficial for people with phobias. A professional can use flooding therapy to treat or manage a range of disorders, including:

  • Anxiety
  • PTSD
  • OCD

The process may look slightly different depending on the person’s condition and how they are affected by the disorder. For example, a person with PTSD may be asked to imagine the experience that resulted in the PTSD. Of course, this is done in the presence of a trained therapist. 

(When a patient is simply asked to think of the phobia, the therapy may be called “implosion therapy.”) 

A patient with OCD may be exposed to stimuli that “trigger” certain behaviors. They are asked to sit with those stimuli without performing those behaviors.

Patients don’t have to have a serious condition to benefit from flooding therapy and other methods of exposure therapy. Confrontation may make a patient anxious, but it isn’t a full-blown phobia. The therapist may use role-play and other forms of exposure to “mock” confrontation until the patient is comfortable confronting someone on their own. 

Flooding Therapy Pros and Cons

Pros of Flooding Therapy

There are many reasons why a therapist would choose flooding therapy over other types of exposure therapy. 

For one, there is only one session involved with flooding therapy. Methods like systematic desensitization or graded exposure require multiple sessions of the patient “warming up” to their phobia. (One session may be looking at a snake. The next session will be looking at a snake and visualizing seeing a snake. The patient eventually works their way up to being in the same room with a snake or petting it.) Flooding therapy is considered time- (and cost-) effective for many.

woman with a fear of snakes receiving flooding therapy

Think of exposure therapy like pulling off a Band-Aid. Flooding therapy is like pulling the whole bandage off in one motion. Other types of exposure therapy may only rip pieces of the Band-Aid off over a longer period of time. 

Cons of Flooding Therapy

If flooding therapy sounds too intense, you’re not alone. While some therapists have found it to be an effective way of treating phobias or other conditions, other therapists prefer more gradual methods. 

The shock of exposing someone with a serious phobia to that phobia may result in trauma or hospitalization. This doesn’t happen in every case, but it is a risk to consider if you and a mental health professional are considering flooding therapy as a treatment method. 

Reach Out to a Licensed Professional

If you are looking to treat a phobia or mental condition, continue to do research. Weigh the pros and cons of other methods. Exposure therapy is just one type of therapy – you may benefit more from methods like CBT, group therapy, or existential therapy. 

Be sure to reach out to a licensed professional as you do your research. A working therapist may be able to point you in the right direction and give suggestions for treatments or professionals that may work best for your condition and situation.

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.