True or false: If your best friend is terrified of spiders, the best
thing you can do to help her is lock her in a room with a tarantula until she
stops freaking out.
Believe it or not, a lot of psychologists will tell you that the correct answer
to that is True. The technique is called 'flooding', and it has a solid base
in behavioral therapy. The underlying theory behind flooding is that a phobia
is a learned fear, and needs to be unlearned by exposure to the thing that you
By definition, a phobia is an unreasoning fear to a non-dangerous thing or
situation. Somehow this non-dangerous thing has become associated with the panic
response usually associated with mortal danger. By forcing the phobic to confront
their fear, therapists reason, they will learn that there is nothing dangerous
about it. One psychiatrist puts it this way:
If you give a horse an electric shock every time he puts his right forefoot
on the floor, he will learn very quickly to keep that foot off the floor.
If you then stop giving the shock, he will continue to keep that foot lifted
off the floor. Why? Because he has no way of knowing that the floor is no
longer electrified unless he is forced to put his foot down again. In the
same way, a person who has developed a phobia of a particular thing or situation
will go to extreme lengths to avoid that situation. As long as they avoid
exposure to the thing that they fear, they have no way of knowing that it
can't hurt them.
Flooding in its purest form involves forced, prolonged exposure to the actual
stimulus that provoked the original trauma. In real practice, that can be problematic,
if not completely impossible. It isn't really practical to fill a room with
snakes and spiders, for example, and force someone to sit in it for hours.
In the mid-1960s, Thomas Stampfl, pioneered a technique called 'implosion
therapy' to treat phobias. He found that phobic patients who were bombarded
with detailed descriptions of the situations that they feared for six to nine
continuous hours lost their fear of those situations. His research was expanded
upon and refined by Zev Wanderer, who used biofeedback machines to monitor patients
listening to verbal descriptions of what they most feared. By concentrating
on the phrases that sparked the most intense reactions, Wanderer reduced the
time needed for the first flooding session from nine hours to about two hours.
Patients then returned for further sessions, usually as short as half an hour.
To increase the effectiveness of the therapy and shorten the time needed,
Wanderer combined the in-office therapy with loop recordings of the phrases
that were most likely to trigger the phobic reactions. His patients would take
the tape recordings home and listen to them as 'homework'.