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Study Notes

Treating Phobias - Flooding

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

A more extreme behavioural therapy is flooding. Rather than exposing a person to their phobic stimulus gradually, a person is exposed to the most frightening situation immediately.

For example, a person with a phobia of dogs would be placed in a room with a dog and asked to stroke the dog straight away.

With flooding, a person is unable to avoid (negatively reinforce) their phobia and through continuous exposure, anxiety levels decrease.

Flooding can take one of two forms:

  • in vivo (actual exposure), or
  • in vitro (imaginary exposure)

A patient is taught relaxation techniques (see above) and these techniques are then applied to the most feared situation either through direct exposure, or imagined exposure.

Evaluation of flooding

One strength of flooding is it provides a cost effective treatment for phobias. Research has suggested that flooding is comparable to other treatments, including systematic desensitisation and cognition therapies (Ougrin, 2011), however it is significantly quickly. This is a strength because patients are treated quicker and it is more cost effective for health service providers.

Although flooding is considered a cost effective solution, it is highly traumatic for patients and causes a high level of anxiety. Although patients provide informed consent, many do not complete their treatment because the experience is too stressful and therefore flooding is sometimes a waste of time and money, if patients do not finish their therapy.

Finally, although flooding is highly effective for simple (specific) phobias, the treatment is less effective for other types of phobia, including social phobia and agoraphobia. Some psychologists suggest that social phobias are caused by irrational thinking and are not caused by an unpleasant experiences (or learning through classical conditioning). Therefore, more complex phobias cannot be treated by behaviourist treatments and may be more responsive to other forms of treatment, for example cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which treats the irrational thinking.

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