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Dealing with Avoidance-Motivated Behavior: Flooding and Rational Override

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Flooding. An extreme variation of the exposure principle is known as flooding. In flooding, you expose yourself to the feared thing not in small or medium size doses but instead, all at once, in fullest intensity. You remain there (experiencing the full intensity of your fear) until habituation occurs. For example, traumatized people (who normally would avoid things reminding them of their tramautic experience) might decide to flood themselves by describing their traumatic experience in detail (or writing it down in detail) so as to bring it all back vividly to their minds (in a "flood" of experience, as it were). Like all exposure therapies, flooding seeks to help people habituate to their feared experiences and allow the intense emotion surrounding them to extinguish. There is a lot of danger in the extremeness of flooding, however, in that flooding can lead to re-traumatization (and reinforcement of your fear avoidance response) as easily as it can to habituation. There is a sort of therapeutic window that you need to shoot for; a balance between facing your fears and courting habituation, and respecting your limits for overwhelm. Habituation doesn't happen when you are overwhelmed. In general, you will be better off taking a more mild or medium intensity approach to exposure therapy, than an extreme one.

We should note that exposure therapy can feel overwhelming at any intensity. There are relaxation strategies that you can pursue that can help you to remain calmer during an exposure challenge. We describe them in detail below in our section on changing your moods.

Rational Override. Exposure methods are useful for breaking down the desire to cut and run when confronted with feared events or situations; phobias (irrational fears of things or situations, such as enclosed spaces, dogs or blood) being a perfect example. Sometimes people won't engage such methods at all, however, because they are so afraid of experiencing the things they want to avoid, that they simply won't go near them. This attitude needs to be respected sometimes, particularly when what is being avoided is associated with real trauma (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder, secondary to witnessing violent death, atrocity or abuse). At the same time, often there is no real trauma, and the absolute unwillingness to engage the feared situation is simply irrational. When this latter situation is the case, it is necessary that you simply make yourself do the right thing and engage the exposure process. You could call this a "rational override" technique, because you essentially need to use the rational part of yourself to override the emotional and fearful part of yourself to get the exposure process going. Sometimes you just have to kick yourself into gear and stop making excuses. Some other times, you are dealing with a serious situation (a real trauma) and you're better off taking it slow, and consulting with a professional.

There are two ways to talk yourself into engaging the exposure process: 1) you can talk to yourself about the benefits of doing the avoided thing, and 2) you can talk to yourself about the problems that will occur if you do not stop avoiding the avoided thing. These two strategies correspond to the proverbial carrot and stick (used by a cart driver to motivate the donkey pulling that cart), respectively. If you are avoiding going to the dentist, you can talk to yourself about the benefits of regular dental care (such as keeping as many of your own teeth in your mouth as possible throughout adulthood), and you can also remind yourself about the problems that occur when you do not see the dentist (such as letting a simple cavity turn into a root canal for lack of treatment).

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