What Is Flooding? The Psychology Of Coping With Trauma, Anxiety, Phobias, And OCD

Updated November 8, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Flooding is a type of exposure therapy that’s used in treating invasive and distressing psychological thoughts, primarily phobias, via the use of intense and immediate exposure to negative stimuli. While other types of exposure therapies may gradually build a patient up from smaller and less calamitous examples of stimuli in their treatment, flooding generally starts with the most difficult aspects from the very beginning.

Learn Ways to Cope With Trauma, Anxiety, And Phobias

How Does Flooding Work?

Flooding works on the same principles as classical conditioning, which aims to modify our responses to certain stimuli in either a positive or negative manner.

Examples Of Conditioning In Exposure Therapy

In 1897, the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, conducted a classical conditioning experiment where he trained his dogs to associate the sound of a metronome (the stimulus, in this case) with food. Therefore, the dogs were conditioned to salivate upon hearing that particular tone from then on.

Another example of conditioning is if we ate food that gave us food poisoning. Our bodies may go into defense mode after such an unpleasant ordeal, and we may strongly want to avoid eating that dish again in the future. Even if we know the dish may not make us sick again, we may associate it with sickness and be repulsed by it. In this case, we are conditioned by the experience to avoid a specific food due to our minds "learning" (or being conditioned to believe) that it was associated with unpleasant sensations and results.

On the other hand, positive conditioning is the desired result of flooding in therapy. This form of therapy is conducted by bringing a negative concept to us and re-condition our to view it in a positive or neutral light and respond accordingly. This is done to alleviate (or at least lessen) our fears, triggers, and other behaviors.

When receiving flooding as treatment, we may be exposed to what has triggered such strong negative responses in us. Therapists may encourage us to practice various forms of relaxation methods throughout the process, thereby eventually calming ourselves in the presence of our particularly undesirable trigger. This works to "re-wire," or positively condition, our minds to no longer react so intensely when presented with that trigger again in the future.

By associating with the negative event, the goal is for us to become desensitized to it to an extent. This allows us to cope in daily life.

How Is Flooding Used In The Treatment Of Various Conditions?

This type of therapy can be done via immersive techniques, with the assistance of virtual reality, or with actual images. With successful flooding treatment, we may experience the following:

  • Decreased reactions to triggers
  • Increased sense of capability in handling our fears and anxieties
  • Reduced negative associations regarding situations or particular stimuli
  • Increased emotional processing regarding fears and the world around us

Flooding is not a treatment appropriate for all individuals and all situations, and not all mental health professionals choose to use it in therapy.

Flooding As A Treatment Method

Flooding, as one of the many variations of exposure therapy, is sometimes appropriate in the treatment of numerous mental health conditions such as anxiety, trauma, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors (OCD). While it may not be suitable for every person seeking treatment, flooding may greatly reduce the invasive and stressful responses for us when we experience triggering stimuli.

Flooding As A Treatment For Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

In the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), exposure therapy may need to be approached with caution due to the severity of the experiences that induced the post-traumatic symptoms in the first place. But flooding may still be a viable option for reducing those incapacitating responses to negative stimuli.

With the factors of a traumatic situation generally being too dangerous or impossible to replicate in standard exposure therapy—such as a car accident or an attack—mental health professionals will often use an alternative variation known as imaginal exposure.

This method involves having us imagine the aspects of our trauma and replay them in our minds under the guidance of a licensed professional, while vividly describing them as much as possible. This allows us to be re-immersed in the trauma while in a safe environment and under the care of a psychologist who can provide support in keeping us calm and assisting in the re-conditioning process. Through this method, we may gradually learn to manage our reactions to flashbacks, memories, and triggers related to the event.

Flooding As Treatment For Anxiety

Exposure therapy can sometimes be an appropriate treatment if we struggle with anxiety or anxiety-related disorders. If we were to experience social anxiety, our mental health professional might encourage us to counter this aversion head-on by going into a public place or social event. While directly stimulated by the issue that bothers us the most, we may be instructed to practice relaxation techniques and exercises until we’re capable of remaining calm in the undesired circumstances.

The aim of this exercise is for us to grow so we can overcome our fear. We may still be a bit uncomfortable in public or crowded places, but it may only pertain to general overstimulation if we genuinely prefer smaller groups or solitary activities on our own. The goal of flooding is to desensitize us to the sights, sounds, and smells around us and realize that others in public are simply going about their business.

Anxiety-based treatment via in-person or online therapy can also be beneficial for us if we have a fear of speaking in front of others, if we’re dealing with self-image issues, or even if we’re overly affected by something like being stuck in traffic. All of these are issues that may have resulting anxieties that can be reduced by flooding, exposure, or another form of conditioning. 

Flooding For The Treatment Of Phobias

Phobias are one of the most recognized conditions treated with flooding or exposure therapy. In general therapy, a gradual approach to treating phobias is often taken, building up from smaller triggers to those with the most significance. However, flooding starts on the opposite side of the spectrum.

If we reach out to a mental health professional due to an extreme fear of dogs to the point that we’re unable to go on a walk, we may likely be instructed to expose ourselves to dogs in a safe environment. This could be petting or holding a dog (and one possibly belonging to a friend or relative to ensure good temperament) and "enduring" the interaction until our anxiety and adrenaline calm down and pass. This helps us to realize the lack of risk involved with encountering dogs and additionally grow accustomed to the interaction.

This exposure may help condition us to associate positive or neutral reactions in response to coming across dogs in less familiar settings. If this is achieved, we may be able to overcome our fears entirely.

For other (non-animal) phobias, such as being in a moving vehicle or being afraid of the dark, it may be easy to be immediately placed in these situations safely and remain in them until the appropriate calming techniques are applied.

One challenge with flooding is that it may not be a success the first time. This is because we can quickly remove ourselves from the stimuli before the exposure therapy has time to re-condition our responses to our specific fears. If this occurs, we may be exposed to harsh symptoms that need to be addressed in order to heal.

Flooding As A Tool To Overcome OCD

The behaviors we experience with OCD can often be due to underlying fears. For example, we may believe that repetitive and often specifically-numbered actions may resolve or prevent something unwanted from happening.

Flooding, in this context, allows us to be fully immersed in a situation that would trigger our compulsive behaviors. Our mental health professional can guide us to not engaging in any of them while experiencing distress. This can be anything from coming into contact with "contaminated" surfaces (whether truly contaminated or not) to addressing certain thoughts that provoke obsessive-compulsive behaviors.

In OCD, these disruptive and compulsive behaviors are often an avoidance tactic to circumvent experiencing certain fears. We may convince ourselves that the behaviors are somehow preventative actions against the particular negative stimuli.

OCD becomes an issue when these behaviors begin affecting our lives. By not allowing ourselves to indulge in these ritualistic activities, but still being exposed to whatever it may be that triggers them, exposure therapy may help us to learn that our obsessive-compulsive actions have no significant impact on the outcome of the situation at hand. This also may allow us to realize that we can handle the amount of anxiety induced by a situation without always relying on our ritualistic behaviors.

Further Information Regarding Flooding

Though flooding is a successful tool in treating numerous psychological conditions, it may not be for everyone. Furthermore, not every mental health professional will be willing to engage in this method for therapeutic purposes. Symptoms successfully treated with exposure therapy may be a component of other psychological conditions that may require further treatment.

Learn Ways to Cope With Trauma, Anxiety, And Phobias

Researchers are increasingly exploring techniques by which they can deliver various forms of exposure therapy to patients online. A study launched in 2016 is testing the effects of treating people with eating disorders and other forms of anxiety with imaginal exposure therapy delivered online. This treatment asks patients, via remote counseling, to face their anxiety source through imagination exercises

Moreover, online therapy is typically more affordable as it requires less time to take off work for an appointment.

Online Therapy With BetterHelp

If you believe you might be able to benefit from flooding or another form of exposure therapy, connect with a mental health professional via BetterHelp.

Online counselors at BetterHelp are available to answer your questions, administer treatment, and direct you to further resources. Read what others have to say about their experiences with BetterHelp counselors below.

“I’m so thankful to be working with Melissa. I felt a positive connection with her during our first session. Melissa listens and validated that my concerns are real. I’m now starting to understand how my stress or fears might be linked to some childhood trauma. I look forward to each session and learning more about myself along with new ways to cope.”

“Most times in my life I have seen therapy as a four-letter word. I find myself, for a change, looking forward to my appointments with Amanda. Often I find myself questioning the process but Amanda is always there with kind words and ways to challenge my fears. Her work is priceless and too is the clear personal connection she forms. I am so happy I gave BetterHelp a change and was blessed to be matched with Amanda.”

Takeaway

Flooding may be a suitable form of therapy for coping with flashbacks, PTSD, distressing thoughts, phobias, anxiety, or OCD. Connect with a therapist online to explore this method of treatment and gain some clarity on how this technique may work for your personal experience.

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For more information regarding exposure therapy, other mental health concerns, or any of the conditions listed above, contact your local mental health care professionals or reach out to the readily available support and resources via BetterHelp's online therapy professionals.

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