Emotional Flooding: How To Cope With Overflowing Emotions
By Kelly Spears
Updated March 18, 2020
If you've ever been involved in a heated discussion and become overwhelmed with emotion, you've likely experienced emotional flooding. This reaction to overwhelming emotions sends the body's nervous system into overdrive, resulting in what psychologist John Gottman describes as "emotional hijacking."
It's helpful to recognize the signs of emotional flooding, though it's important to note that everyone's experience is unique. For this reason, it's essential to identify your own triggers and reactions, along with effective coping skills.
In this article, you'll learn:
- The common triggers of emotional flooding
- Telltale signs of emotional flooding
- How emotional flooding affects relationships
- Tried-and-true coping strategies
- What to avoid when you experience emotional flooding
- Who's at risk
- How to help others who experience emotional flooding
- Helpful resources
- How therapy can help
Common Triggers Of Emotional Flooding
High levels of stress and strong emotions contribute to the likelihood of emotional flooding. When an individual becomes flooded, there is a physiological response. This response can vary from person to person.
Emotional flooding generally occurs when there are two coinciding overwhelming emotions that make an individual feel helpless and/or trapped. For instance, a parent might feel a combination of helplessness and intense guilt after missing his or her child's school play due to a traffic jam. These coexisting emotions may lead to emotional flooding.
Telltale Signs Of Emotional Flooding
As mentioned previously, everyone's threshold for emotional flooding is unique. Similarly, the signs and symptoms vary by person. Below are some common signals that you may be experiencing emotional overload:
- Trouble focusing due to overwhelming emotions: You'll likely notice that it's difficult, if not impossible, to process information.
- Mental withdrawal: Your brain "checks out" in an effort to cope with the overwhelming emotions you're experiencing.
- Fluctuating emotions: You may quickly oscillate from feeling angry to embarrassed or anxious.
- Fight-or-flight reaction: You may feel an intense need to stand your ground or remove yourself from a situation.
- Physical symptoms: You may have sweaty palms, difficulty breathing, a flushed face, increased pulse, tightening in the abdomen, and/or tunnel vision.
How Emotional Flooding Affects Relationships
When emotional flooding takes over, your body responds as if it's in the midst of an attack. This overload of emotions may occur during an interaction with your partner, in which case you might resort to blaming, yelling, and/or personal attacks. Another common reaction to emotional flooding is completely shutting down, abruptly ending the conversation without resolution.
These emotionally charged interactions are difficult for both parties. In some cases, emotional flooding causes a cycle of arguing and retreating. Individual and/or couples therapy is often the key to interrupting this unhealthy cycle.
Coping Strategies For Emotional Flooding
Becoming aware of your individual signs of emotional flooding can help you prepare for future episodes. While it's virtually impossible to predict when you'll become overcome with emotion, having a plan in place can help you navigate the situation if and when it occurs.
Helpful coping strategies include:
- Focusing on your breath. When emotions are running high, the breath tends shorten. Breathing exercises are a surefire way to reduce stress. You can try belly breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, roll breathing, and morning breathing to see which technique(s) work best for you. You can find instructions for all of these exercises published on the University of Michigan's online health library. You can also practice meditating when you become overwhelmed. There are many free and inexpensive apps available that offer breathing exercises and guided meditations.
- Talk to someone you trust. If you're feeling overwhelmed, confide in a caring, empathetic friend or family member. When emotional flooding takes control, thoughts often become irrational, so be sure to communicate with a nonjudgmental person who understands the effects of emotional overload.
- Take a break. It's virtually impossible to work through problems when you're in a highly emotional state. Whether you're arguing with your partner, or your boss is being unreasonable, you can benefit from taking a timeout and only returning to the situation after you're in a healthier state of mind.
- Sometimes, getting your blood pumping can banish emotional flooding. Go for a bike ride or jog, or invite a friend to join you for a walk.
- Question your thoughts. Ask yourself if the racing thoughts you're experiencing are true. Remember: Your thoughts aren't facts. Remind yourself of this when your thoughts become irrational.
- Practice self-care. It can be difficult to practice self-care in the moment, but self-soothing, compassionate, judgment self-talk can be incredibly helpful. Once you start feeling better, treat yourself to some serious self-care.
What To Avoid When You Experience Emotional Flooding
Just as the above-mentioned coping strategies will help the majority of people who become emotionally flooded, there are a few unhealthy approaches that will likely worsen the experience for most individuals. When you feel overloaded, avoid the following reactions:
- Using alcohol, drugs, or other substances to cope.
- Ruminating, which can worsen your stress response.
- Numbing out with food, TV, or social media.
- Jumping to conclusions and reacting without first identifying your needs and wishes.
Who's At Risk Of Emotional Flooding
Anyone can experience emotional flooding, especially individuals dealing with elevated levels of stress. Major life events, such as having a baby, starting a new job, divorce, or the death of a loved one can increase the chance of emotional flooding.
Those at an increased risk also include:
- Highly sensitive people. Early in life, many people are taught that sensitivity is a personality flaw. While this certainly isn't the case, as highly sensitive people are typically incredibly empathetic, creative, and conscientious, they are also more susceptible to emotional flooding. These individuals experience emotions more vividly than other people, and their brains are actually wired differently.
- Unfortunately, boys aren't commonly taught to effectively deal with their emotions in childhood, instead being encouraged to "toughen up" in emotional situations. This lack of skills carries over into adulthood, and the likelihood of emotional overload rises.
- People in contentious relationships. Individuals in turbulent partnerships may experience emotional flooding during conflict. When one or both partners are argumentative and unwilling to acknowledge the other person's point of view, tensions rise, making it difficult to communicate effectively.
How To Help Others Who Experience Emotional Flooding
One of the most detrimental aspects of emotional flooding is the tendency to say hurtful things. The flooded individual is likely to lash out, which could lead to flooding in his or her partner.
If you are having a difficult conversation with an individual who is expressing signs of emotional flooding, keep in mind that his or her current emotional state makes it virtually impossible to tap into logic, empathy, and compassion. It's best to pause the conversation until both parties are able to continue the exchange from a rational point of view.
Other ways to help someone overcome emotional flooding include:
- Practicing active listening. Since the individual is filled with overwhelming emotions, he or she may struggle to tap into self-compassion. Express your care and concern, and validate the person's emotions by saying, "I understand why you feel that way," or "I appreciate you sharing this with me."
- Suggest coping strategies. Share the recommendations from the "Coping Strategies for Emotional Flooding" section above. Offer to practice breathing exercises alongside the individual, take a walk together, or encourage him or her to practice self-care.
Remember: Not everyone will be open to these suggestions. In some situations, the individual will simply need space. Respect his or her wishes, and encourage him or her to reach out when ready.
There are many resources available for individuals struggling to deal with difficult emotions. Below are a few tried-and-true favorites:
- "The Highly Sensitive Person-How to Thrive when the World Overwhelms You," by Elaine N. Aron, offers a wealth of knowledge for highly sensitive people and anyone who wants to understand how these individuals experience the world around them. The book includes quizzes that will help you recognize your own sensitivities, information on how relationships are impacted by sensitivity, and techniques to help with emotional overload. If you're highly sensitive, this resource will help you feel empowered and less alone.
- "Calming the Emotional Storm," by Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, will guide you in understanding, expressing, and processing difficult emotions. This is a great resource for banishing nagging fears and persistent worries. The author explains how to get through a crisis without experiencing emotional overload. This practical guide includes helpful exercises and a section devoted to debunking common misconceptions about emotions.
- "Rising Strong," By Dr. Brené Brown, is a powerful resource that will help you process difficult emotions. The author manages to delve into challenging topics that will likely resonate with any reader.
How Online Therapy Can Help
While the resources listed above are helpful on their own, combining them with individualized therapy is an excellent way to identify the reasons you experience emotional flooding. ReGain's online therapy services are confidential, convenient, and affordable. You'll be matched with a licensed therapist who will work with you to process your emotions, communicate more effectively, and help you navigate emotional flooding when it occurs. You may choose individual therapy, couples therapy, or both!
Emotional flooding doesn't have to rule your life. With the information and resources provided in this article, you can start processing your emotions, expressing them more effectively, and living without fear of emotional flooding.