Artwork by

Understanding Flooding Therapy: A Comprehensive Overview

Medically reviewed by

Written by Kshithij karan

You must have heard of the phrase “confront your fears,” while it sounds intimidating, it is a surprisingly well-accepted idea across societies. However, as psychologists note, repeated exposure to your fears and triggers can be harmful and detrimental to your mental health, except in certain forms of therapy. 

One such intensive type of therapy is called flooding therapy, a branch of exposure therapy that aims to prepare your mind for your triggers and allow you to manage them better over time. The idea is to face your fears at their worst and build resilience over time but in a controlled environment rather than setting about to meet your phobias head-on all by yourself; flooding therapy functions on the same idea but in a systematic, therapeutic environment overseen by a licensed mental health professional. 

We understand this may still not instill confidence in you about this unique technique, so let’s look at its core elements and how it is carried out in a practical setup. 

The Core Principles of Flooding Therapy

Flooding therapy is in direct contradiction with the far more popular and less intimidating systemic form of gradual desensitization, which focuses on taking small steps toward creating positive mechanisms against one’s fears and eliminating them over a while. Flooding therapy provides an alternative, time-efficient way to find solutions for your phobias. 

Through the course of a few sessions, flooding therapy looks to recondition your typical responses to fearful and anxiety-inducing scenarios. You are put in scenarios where you build more resilient strategies to cope and manage your fear rather than trying to avoid it, which is a key concern for many with mental health conditions. Over time, through increased exposure, the goal is to build the specific tools you need to face it without mental health concerns.

The Mechanics of Exposure in Flooding Therapy

Flooding therapy works on the foundational idea of phobias that what your brain perceives as dangerous or threatening is not as it initially seems. Flooding the brain with these fear-inducing stimuli thus becomes a key factor in eliminating stress. While symptoms of anxiety surge at the start of the therapy, it reduce over time as you get conditioned to the stimuli and feel less and less threatened over time. 

For some people, anxiety tends to lower after a while, but it is crucial to note that this can be an emotionally challenging exercise and not advised for everyone. A therapist monitors and takes note of your progress and recommends an increase in intensity, sessions, or change in procedure accordingly. 

What to Expect in a Flooding Therapy Session

As with every therapy session, a professional will conduct a detailed evaluation of your mental health concerns and ensure that flooding therapy is suitable for you, as it is not everyone’s cup of tea. Flooding therapy comes across as reckless but is very structured and systematic. 

To address the particular challenge you are encountering, ranging from anxiety disorders, phobias, or OCD, the therapist will design a controlled environment where you can face your fears within their supervision. The therapist usually guides you through this exposure but will not participate actively in alleviating your anxiety. 

The goal is to allow you to manage the fears over time, so expect minimal intervention between the sessions. It is expected that you may face a sudden burst of distress at the start, but based on your response to the therapy, the expert will make adequate modifications. 

While the therapist tries to minimize their role during the session, they will offer strategies, support, and encouragement throughout your treatment journey as you gradually rewire your brain’s fear responses.

Paste typeform embed here. Don't forget to delete this before pasting!

Tailoring Flooding Therapy to Individual Needs

Mental health is complex, and the way you respond to flooding therapy may vary entirely from how someone else would. Besides that, flooding therapy ensures that it creates necessary adjustments to the exposure based on a person’s exact mental health condition or concern, their medical or health background, and issues surrounding social relationships. 

The nature and severity of your anxiety or phobia is also an important factor in determining the right program. The pacing of sessions is modified based on your tolerance levels to fear-inducing stimuli, and the therapist provides personalized self-care strategies and emotional guidance in line with your requirements.

The Role of the Therapist in Guiding Flooding Sessions

The core of flooding therapy is enabling a person to adapt and mitigate their responses over time through increased exposure. That does not mean that the therapists aren’t actively involved. Firstly, they produce crucial education and background on your specific condition and prepare you for the intense emotional task that lies ahead. 

It is important for you to identify the false alarms that your brain sends upon facing your triggers and gradually work on reconditioning them. Further, therapists ensure they create a safe, comfortable, and non-judgmental environment for patients to discuss their struggles and express their emotional responses. Desensitizing often comes with immense distress, and they ensure you receive the support and empowerment you need.

Building Trust and Safety: The Therapeutic Alliance in Flooding

It cannot be stressed enough that flooding therapy does not apply to everyone and comes with potential risks surrounding trauma and anxiety. Thus, as you embark on this difficult journey, establishing an alliance built on trust is important for long-term success. 

From the other end, the therapist will ensure that they provide a safe space where you can open up and face your fears with support, empathy, and zero judgment. With each flood of anxiety-provoking experiences, engagement and collaboration will determine the right approaches going forward.

Flooding Therapy vs. Other Exposure-Based Therapies

The impact of flooding therapy lies in its ability to desensitize the brain to your fears through continual intense exposure to them. Other exposure-based therapies often take a more gradual approach, starting with less intense stimuli and increasing over time based on your progress.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), for instance, involves activating your triggers using vivid imagery and eliciting your past experiences. Narrative Exposure therapy works if you feel more comfortable laying out your life experiences through a narrative, enabling you to reframe it over time.

The Evidence Base for Flooding Therapy: Efficacy and Research

1. Marshall WL. (1985). The effects of variable exposure in flooding therapy.

The effects of variable exposure in flooding therapy

2. Keane TM, et al. (1989). Implosive (flooding) therapy reduces symptoms of PTSD in Vietnam combat veterans.

Implosive (flooding) therapy reduces symptoms of PTSD in Vietnam combat veterans

3. Schumacher S, et al. (2015). Therapists' and patients' stress responses during graduated versus flooding in vivo exposure in the treatment of specific phobia: a preliminary observational study.

Therapists' and patients' stress responses during graduated versus flooding in vivo exposure in the treatment of specific phobia: A preliminary observational study

Book screening with our director of triage,  Kamlesh Verma
Take the first step


1. What is flooding in psychiatry?

Flooding in psychiatry is a therapeutic approach that immerses individuals in their most anxiety-inducing fears to recondition their responses. Used to treat disorders like anxiety, phobias, and OCD, it's an intense form of exposure therapy conducted under professional guidance aimed at reducing anxiety and fear responses over time.

2. What is an example of flooding therapy in psychology?

An example of flooding therapy in psychology is exposing a person with a fear of heights to a high, anxiety-inducing situation, such as standing on a tall building. The person would confront their fear in a controlled environment, gradually desensitizing their anxiety response over time.

3. What type of therapy is flooding?

Flooding is a type of exposure therapy used in psychology. It involves exposing individuals to their fears or phobias in a concentrated and intense manner, to reduce their anxiety and fear responses through repeated and prolonged exposure.

4. What is the flooding behavior modification technique?

Flooding is a behavior modification technique used to treat phobias and anxiety disorders. The idea is that by facing their fears directly and repeatedly, the person can learn to manage and eventually overcome their phobia or anxiety. While it is not focused on changing a person's behaviors, it works on rewiring how a person approaches a situation. 

5. How does flooding therapy work?

Flooding therapy is a type of exposure therapy that involves facing and gradually desensitizing individuals to their specific fears and phobias through controlled, intense exposure overseen by a licensed mental health professional. It aims to recondition their fear responses over time.

Share this article on social media

Articles you may like

Also watch