What Is Flooding Therapy? How It Helps Treat Phobias, OCD, And Trauma

Last Update on August 24, 2022 : Published on August 24, 2022

When you’re faced with your fear, you’ll do anything to escape it, won’t you? Take me for example; I struggle with cynophobia (the fear of dogs), so when I see a dog, even across the street, I would turn around and walk the long way to avoid encountering the dog. Most people, living with a specific phobia or fear would do something similar to avoid facing their fears.

It’s quite a common reaction too. Whether you are scared of heights, closed spaces, or social interactions, you’d go a long way to avoid spaces and situations that might trigger your fear.

Now, what do you think will happen if you’re forced to face your fear, without escaping? What if I told you that there is a therapy technique that pushes you, albeit under a controlled environment, to face your fears?

This type of therapy is called flooding therapy and is a type of exposure therapy. In this therapy technique, you’re exposed to your fear for a time until your body (and mind) calms down enough.

In this blog, we’ll be taking a look at what is flooding therapy, how it works in real-time, and how it can help treat anxiety, phobias, OCD, and trauma.

What Is Flooding Therapy?


Flooding therapy is a type of exposure therapy that makes you face your fear in a controlled environment, under the guidance of a trained counselor, for a prolonged period. In this therapy, you can’t immediately escape the stimulated situation and there’s a limited attempt from the counselor to reduce your fear and anxiety.

Quite unconventional, flooding therapy helps gradually work through your fears. However, it does not ease into the process. During flooding, you’re directly exposed to your greatest (and difficult) stimuli at once and this continues until the stress response aka the fight-or-flight response calms down.

How Does Flooding In Psychology Work?

Once you consent to flooding therapy, the “in-vivo” technique will be implied. In-vivo means that you’ll be exposed to your fear in real-life. If, in any case, it’s not possible then you’ll be exposed to images, VR, or props.

When you undergo flooding, you’re exposed to your greatest fear in a controlled environment for a prolonged period. Without an escape.

During this, you will use calming strategies to calm your fear response but your therapist, while present, will not attempt to help you lower your distress. They may, however, help you learn some techniques before the therapy begins.

Flooding, when it comes to psychology, aims to expose you to your fear. And while at first, you may experience severe anxiety and even panic, with time and eventually an exhausted stress response, you’ll find yourself calming down. Normally, you’ll do anything to avoid your fear but when you’re forced to face your fear, your mind (and body) will realize that the source of your fear means no harm. Eventually, as your mind and body realize this, the fear will be lower than it was when you first began the treatment.

Prolonged exposure to fear can create a new link between your phobia and positive conditioning. It can also help you avoid using unhealthy coping mechanisms to avoid your fear.

Let me give you a flooding therapy example:

If you live with social anxiety, then a flooding therapy session may involve you attending a public event for several hours. This may or may not involve public speaking. A typical session would require you to stay at the event until your panic and anxiety of being exposed to your trigger goes down. The therapist will be present but won’t help you work through your anxiety. And you won’t be able to escape the situation, either.

Flooding Therapy As Treatment


While the research on flooding as a treatment approach is limited, some studies suggest that it can work and help treat many disorders, including phobias, anxiety, PTSD, trauma, and OCD.

Flooding therapy is not for everyone, especially people with heart conditions and heavy trauma. However, flooding can be cost-effective and not very time-consuming compared to other therapy approaches.

When you complete flooding as a treatment, you’ll find yourself having better control over your fears and anxiety, in general.

Flooding therapy can be used to treat the following conditions and disorders:

1.Flooding For Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

The repetitive behaviors performed by someone with OCD have some kind of underlying fear driving those behaviors. They may feel that performing repetitive behaviors can prevent or resolve something unexpected.

Flooding here can help by allowing the person in treatment to be immersed in a situation that would trigger their actions. The therapist will guide them by not engaging in easing their distress. It could be anything from coming in contact with contaminated objects to a haphazard room with out-of-sync objects. Anything that provokes their obsessive and compulsive triggers.

When one struggles with OCD, the behaviors are also often an avoidance tactic to distract themselves from experiencing underlying fears. OCD behavior becomes harmful when those actions begin interrupting the other aspects of one’s life. Exposure therapy, or flooding, can help them understand that they can live without their repetitive actions and the anxiety that follows those actions.

2.Flooding Therapy For Phobias

To treat phobias and irrational fears, exposure therapy is most recommended. With flooding therapy for phobias, one will be exposed to their greatest fear until they learn to work through their triggers. For example, a person with a fear of dogs will be exposed to a safe and controlled environment with dogs.

This could involve petting a dog, holding a dog, or taking one on a walk. This will be an enduring experience until their fear and the anxiety that comes with it calms down.

This can also help them understand the lack of risk with the fear and eventually become used to such interactions. This exposure will eventually lead to a positive or neutral reaction to their previous negative experience.

3.Flooding Therapy For Anxiety

Another therapy technique that can help treat anxiety disorders is exposure therapy. Let’s take the example of social anxiety again. A person with a social anxiety disorder will be exposed to a social event and would be required to stay there until their stress response calms down. They will be instructed to use relaxation techniques and exercises until they remain calm in the social event.

Although an undesirable approach and with a high risk, the person would gradually realize that they will not be harmed in the social setting. They might be uncomfortable in social situations in the future but would no longer feel the crippling anxiety like before. They would eventually become desensitized towards sounds, sights, and smells and would realize that others around them are not harmful and are just doing their own thing.

Anxiety treatment, done through online and in-person therapy can also help people with public speaking anxiety, self-image issues, and people who easily get overwhelmed. All these conditions can be reduced with flooding therapy or exposure therapy.

4.Flooding For Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When treating PTSD and extreme trauma, exposure therapy must be very carefully executed. Caution is always advised when treating PTSD and trauma with exposure therapy or flooding therapy. Flooding therapy can be an option to help reduce incapacitating responses to negative or psychologically harmful situations.

With the factors of trauma being too dangerous or almost impossible to recreate in exposure therapy, an alternate version can be used. Imaginal exposure can involve asking the person affected to imagine the trauma and replay it in their minds. All done under the supervision of a trained therapist.

This activity will allow the person to be immersed in the trauma in a safe environment and under a therapist who can assist in the conditioning process. This can help the person gradually learn to cope with distress to traumatic memories, flashbacks, and other trauma triggers.

In Conclusion…

It’s common to go to great lengths to avoid our fears but this avoidance can cost us a lot and can leave us feeling anxious all the time. With flooding therapy, you can directly face your fear and learn to work through the triggers immediately instead eventually.

Flooding therapy requires you to stay in the present while facing your fear until your stress response calms down. This exposure therapy technique can help you realize that you’re OK and your fear is not as harmful to you as you might have thought.

Flooding therapy can help people living with phobias, anxiety disorder, PTSD, and even OCD. While this approach can be unconventional and quite harsh, it can be more effective than other therapy approaches.

I hope this blog helped you understand what is flooding therapy and how it helps in the treatment. For more, you can write to us at info@calmsage.com or DM us on social media. You can also share your views on flooding therapy in the comments below.

Take Care!

About The Author

Swarnakshi Sharma
Swarnakshi Sharma

Swarnakshi is a content writer at Calm sage, who believes in a healthier lifestyle for mind and body. A fighter and survivor of depression, she strives to reach and help spread awareness on ending the stigma surrounding mental health issues. A spiritual person at heart, she believes in destiny and the power of Self. She is an avid reader and writer and likes to spend her free time baking and learning about world cultures.

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