Jul 28 • 5M

142. Why Is Flooding A Bad Idea?

We generally do not recover in one giant leap forward.

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Sometimes we find ourselves at the intersection of two emotional states.

Frustration and motivation.

When we have finally had enough of living a life of self-imposed restriction, we can wind up getting fired up, ready to finally take control, and highly motivated to be done with all this nonsense once and for all. This is the intersection of frustration and motivation. Sometimes, it leads us to want to take one huge step forward to “fix” our problem with a big swing of our recovery broadsword.

You’re all fired up, angry at the small life you’re living, and ready to go toe-to-toe with your anxiety and your fear to end this fight once and for all. In this state anxious people will consider strategies like jumping on a plane and flying abroad, even though they have been too afraid to go more than 10 miles from home for the last 2 years. These are called flooding exposures.

In some circles flooding just means intentionally experiencing panic. But that’s not a problem. We do that all the time recovery. I’m talking about intentionally pushing yourself WELL beyond your current comfort level for an extended period of time, hoping that you can cure your anxiety problem in one big dramatic turn of events.

Sadly, this rarely works. We all want it to work, but it just doesn’t in the vast majority of cases. If you’re wondering why you can’t just “rip the band-aid off” and recover by forcing yourself on a fight to some far away land, let me explain.

The theory behind flooding is that even if you hit the maximum level of fear and panic that you can achieve, physiology will limit how long that lasts and eventually you will exhaust, then calm down and more constructively confront your fear. That’s the theory. But waves of panic are a real thing so a successful flooding experience means that you either have to be skillful enough to not fuel multiple waves of panic, or working with a skilled therapist or counselor who can help you steer clear of those repeating waves.

If you can’t reach the point where you are in total acceptance and surrender mode while terrified, the waves will come and you will learn only that this was a terrible idea and that you must get out of the situation as quickly as possible. In the worst case you give up on the idea and want desperately to end the experience but simply cannot because you are 1000 miles from home, or on an aircraft, or all by yourself, or in some other situation that you just can’t walk out of on demand. This is when flooding backfires and can increase avoidant behaviors after the fact.

See the problem? The theory behind flooding is not wrong, but in practice the deck is stacked against the near perfect execution required to capitalize on the theory. There are therapists that will use flooding with clients they feel are ready and capable of pulling it off, but even a therapist that believes in flooding will not automatically apply the technique to everyone without careful assessment and evaluation first.

In the end, even though you might be sitting at the intersection of frustration and motivation, you might want to direct this awesome burst of energy toward a recovery plan that has a higher percentage chance of working for you. Ready to rip the band-aid off and get your life back immediately? Maybe start by taking that 15 minute drive that you’ve been refusing to take, walking around your neighborhood for 20 minutes, or eating those peanuts that you know you’re not allergic to but are terrified will kill you anyway. These are real steps forward that you can build on to get moving in the direction you want to go in.

Oh, and one more thing. Please do not be freaked out by the idea of flooding. Going to your child’s school concert is not flooding. You can leave if you want to. Attending a family wedding is not flooding. You can leave that too. Going to dinner at a restaurant is not flooding for the same reason. You may push yourself outside your comfort zone and take on challenges, but so long as those challenges have reasonably short duration and you know you can leave at some point, you’re good to go. Challenging yourself is good. You’re not going to ruin your recovery by taking on reasonable challenges.

Have you listened to this week’s episode of The Anxious Truth podcast? Check it out out on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, or my website and YouTube channel.