Flooding vs. Systematic Desensitization: What’s the Difference?

Many people struggle with phobias and anxiety disorders that can hinder their daily life. There are two popular techniques used to treat these disorders – flooding and systematic desensitization. Each of these techniques has different benefits and drawbacks that make them more suited for different individuals. This article will explore the differences between these two techniques and help you better understand which one may be right for you.

What is Flooding?

Flooding is a type of exposure therapy where the person is exposed to the fear or anxiety-inducing stimulus until their fear response fades away. The exposure is intense and prolonged, and the person is not allowed to escape or avoid the triggering stimuli. This is done to help the person overcome their fear by realizing that the anxious feelings will dissipate naturally over time.

How is Flooding Done?

Flooding is done in a controlled environment with a trained therapist. The person is put in a high-anxiety situation and is not allowed to escape it until their brain learns that it is not in danger. For example, if someone is afraid of snakes, they may be placed in a room with snakes for an extended period of time.

Positives of Flooding

  • Flooding can provide quick results after just one or two sessions.
  • It can be a cost-effective way to treat phobias.
  • The person learns that their anxiety will subside naturally over time, which can help them in similar anxiety-inducing situations in the future.

Negatives of Flooding

  • Flooding can be traumatic and overwhelming for some individuals, especially if they are not mentally prepared for the intensity of the exposure.
  • It can also cause negative side effects such as worsening anxiety and depression in some individuals.
  • Flooding can be ineffective for certain types of phobias or anxiety disorders.

What is Systematic Desensitization?

Systematic desensitization is a type of exposure therapy that gradually exposes the individual to the fear or anxiety-inducing stimulus in a controlled environment under the guidance of a trained therapist. This technique is done in small steps and is designed to help the person feel more comfortable and in control of their anxiety as they progress through each step.

How is Systematic Desensitization Done?

Systematic desensitization is done under the guidance of a trained therapist who will help the person identify and work through their phobia systematically. The person will begin with very minor exposure to the trigger and, over time, will work up to more intense situations. For example, if someone is afraid of dogs, they may begin by looking at pictures of dogs or hearing dogs barking, and then work up to being in the same room as a dog.

Positives of Systematic Desensitization

  • Systematic desensitization is generally less traumatic than flooding, making it a better option for individuals who may not be mentally prepared for the intensity of flooding.
  • It can be effective for a wide range of phobias and anxiety disorders.
  • The person learns coping mechanisms and strategies for managing their anxiety that they can use outside of therapy.

Negatives of Systematic Desensitization

  • Systematic desensitization can take longer to see results and may require more sessions than flooding.
  • It can be more expensive than flooding due to the need for ongoing sessions.
  • The person may become stuck at a certain level of exposure and may not progress further unless they receive additional guidance from a therapist.

Which Technique should You Choose?

Choosing between flooding and systematic desensitization largely depends on the individual’s own comfort level and the severity of their anxiety. For individuals who are mentally prepared for the intensity of flooding, this technique produces fast results and is cost-effective. However, it can be traumatic and overwhelming for some individuals. Systematic desensitization may be a better option for individuals who are less mentally prepared for the intensity of exposure therapy. It is generally less traumatic than flooding and can be effective for a wide range of phobias and anxiety disorders, though it may take more time to see results.

Conclusion

Flooding and systematic desensitization are two effective techniques to treat phobias and anxiety disorders. Both techniques are designed to help the individual confront their fear in a controlled environment under the guidance of a trained therapist. Flooding produces fast results and is cost-effective, but it can be traumatic and overwhelming for some individuals. Systematic desensitization is generally less traumatic than flooding and can be effective for a wide range of phobias and anxiety disorders, but may take more time to see results. Ultimately, choosing which technique to use largely depends on the individual’s own comfort level and the severity of their anxiety.

Common Questions and Answers

  • Q: Can flooding cure my anxiety disorder in one session?
  • A: It is possible to see significant improvements in anxiety after one or two sessions of flooding, but it may require additional sessions to fully overcome the fear.
  • Q: Can systematic desensitization work for all types of phobias and anxiety disorders?
  • A: Systematic desensitization is generally effective for many types of phobias and anxiety disorders, but may not work for everyone.
  • Q: How do I know if I am mentally prepared for the intensity of flooding?
  • A: It is important to discuss your anxiety and concerns with a trained therapist who can help you decide which technique is best suited for you.
  • Q: Can exposure therapy worsen my anxiety or depression?
  • A: While exposure therapy can be effective, it may cause negative side effects such as worsening anxiety or depression in some individuals.

References

1. Wolpe J. Psychotherapy by reciprocal inhibition. Stanford University Press; 1958.

2. Foa EB, Rothbaum BO. Treating the trauma of rape: Cognitive-behavioral therapy for PTSD. Guilford Press; 1998.

3. Hayes SC, Strosahl KD. A practical guide to acceptance and commitment therapy. Springer Science & Business Media; 2010.

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