Flooding Therapy: Definition & Concept

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  • 0:02 Phobias
  • 1:12 Flooding Therapy
  • 2:11 Example
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Clause
Flooding is a type of behavioral therapy that can help people overcome specific fears. Learn how this therapy works, then test your new knowledge with a short quiz.


Do you suffer from arachnophobia, the fear of spiders? Or, maybe you have been told that you have entomophobia, the fear of insects. Perhaps you have a friend who is dealing with selachophobia, the fear of sharks. The virtually endless list of phobias seems to include a fear of just about everything. We oftentimes joke about phobias, or chuckle as we self-diagnose ourselves with some bizarre-sounding diagnoses that we found online. The truth of the matter is that true clinical phobias can be very serious and have debilitating effects.

People develop phobias through learned associations. This is known as classical conditioning, when someone makes an association between a negative experience and a specific environmental stimulus. For example, let's say as a child you encountered a bug while playing outside and the bug happened to bite you on your foot. The next day you were playing outside again and a different bug bit you again. You start to associate bugs, a specific environmental stimulus, with painful bites, a negative experience, and you begin to be fearful of all bugs the moment you saw them. At this point, you were well on your way to developing a phobia of bugs.

Flooding Therapy

As psychologists began to better understand phobias and the role that classical conditioning plays in their development, new thoughts and ideas about how to treat phobias shortly followed. One such treatment technique that has been used with success is called flooding. Flooding is the process of teaching patients self-relaxation techniques first and then exposing them abruptly and directly to the fear-evoking stimulus itself. Classical conditioning has taught the person to associate fear with the stimulus, but via flooding the same principles can be used to extinguish the fear response and replace it with a feeling of relaxation, thus eliminating the phobia.

In contrast to other slower-paced forms of behavioral therapy used to treat phobias, like systematic desensitization, as the name implies, flooding is rapid and abrupt exposure, yielding relatively quick results. Flooding is commonly used today by behavioral therapists across the world.


Let's look at an example of how flooding might look in practice. Jim comes to see a behavioral therapist because ever since he and his sister were in a car crash last year, he has been so stricken with fear and anxiety when it comes to cars that he will no longer drive or get into a car. This has had a significant negative impact on Jim and his life. He stopped driving to work, which meant he lost his job, and he rarely leaves his home, which has had a big impact on his social life. Even the sight of cars whizzing down the freeway makes him nervous. He knows that he needs to do something or else this fear will continue to dominate his life.

His therapist recommends flooding therapy and explains that the fear and anxiety that Jim has learned to associate with cars and driving can be replaced by feelings of calm and relaxation. Jim's therapist starts by teaching him a few self-induced breathing for relaxation techniques. Jim practices these with his therapist and at home between sessions.

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