Emotional flooding occurs when the body goes into overdrive or “shutdown” mode after experiencing an overwhelm of emotions or sensations. Symptoms may range from increased anxiety to difficulties focusing, which can develop after dealing with high-stakes conflict or stress. While emotional flooding can feel outside of one’s control, there are ways to recognize and manage this emotional survival response.
What Is Emotional Flooding?
Emotional flooding is the body’s response to being overly physiologically aroused by physical and emotional sensations. When a person experiences too many emotions, their body may go into “shutdown” mode in order to reduce the feeling of overwhelm that comes with emotional flooding. This can look like oscillating between feelings, mentally withdrawing, or having a fight-or-flight reaction.
There are many situations that can induce emotional flooding, and these will largely depend on an individual’s personal triggers. Triggers often develop from early or highly impactful life experiences, and will set off the brain during perceived unsafe situations. These can be related to specific emotions, situations, or interpersonal conflicts.
Symptoms of Emotional Flooding
Symptoms of emotional flooding will range depending on the individual or the presence of a co-occurring mental health condition. They may resemble symptoms of anxiety, such as avoidance behaviors, rapid breathing, or withdrawal.
Emotional flooding can sometimes indicate an underlying mental health diagnosis, but this is not always the case. However, experiencing frequent emotional flooding can often occur alongside post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), major depressive disorder, or even attachment disorders.
Symptoms of emotional flooding may include:
- Increased heart rate
- Breathing becomes shallow and quick
- Trouble focusing
- Increased muscle tension throughout the body
- Negative self-talk
- A strong desire to escape or stop the situation
- Feelings of anxiety/overwhelm
- A pit in your stomach
- Feeling like your throat is constricted
Examples of Emotional Flooding
Emotional flooding can occur in relationships and situations where there tends to be higher levels of friction, conflict, and stress. Overwhelming challenges within romantic, familial, or corporate relationships can all trigger the onset of symptoms.
People often spend a majority of their time with their partners, and there will always be both good and dysregulated moments within a romantic relationship. It can be easy for many of these situations to overwhelm a person, especially when presented with negative interactions with a partner.1
Emotional flooding is particularly more common when dynamics of intimate partner violence are present, or in toxic relationships. When this occurs, there is often an accompanying devaluation of the abused partner or induced shame, both of which can trigger emotional flooding.
Parents & Caregivers
During childhood, a person will attempt to make sense of their parents’ actions, which can contribute to negative internalized beliefs. As parents themselves, they are able to approach parenting more logically–which may instill beliefs that are in direct opposition to the parenting they received. For example, conflicting feelings that occur when a person argues with a child can trigger emotional flooding.2 Furthermore, if a parent is experiencing emotional flooding regularly without taking steps to reduce their strain, it can lead to parental burnout.
There are certain expectations and stressors that come with a work environment that can feel overwhelming. Because a person’s good standing relies heavily on their performance, messages or feedback about one’s work can feel personal. Alongside complicated and nuanced work relationships, this creates an atmosphere for intense emotions that can induce emotional flooding.
Those in a toxic work environment are at particularly high risk for emotional flooding, as one’s boundaries are often overlooked.3 Additionally, this environment typically includes difficult coworker relationships and harsh criticism from bosses or colleagues. With an underlying and overall sense of negativity, a person is constantly exposed to the negative emotions needed to trigger emotional flooding.
Family of Origin Relationships
Family of origin refers to one’s primary caregivers and any other family members who were significantly present throughout their childhood (such as siblings, aunts/uncles, and grandparents). Seeing as one develops internalized beliefs and an understanding of themselves and the world during childhood, being around family can bring up difficult or conflicting feelings and emotions–all of which can set the stage for emotional flooding.
Who Is More Vulnerable to Emotional Flooding?
People who feel their emotions acutely, or do not have the skills to manage them, are at particular risk for experiencing emotional flooding. Those who struggle with certain kinds of mental health disorders may also experience emotional flooding more regularly, due to their particular combination of disorder-related symptoms.
Individuals who are more at risk for emotional flooding may include:
- Highly sensitive persons: Highly sensitive persons (HSPs) are acutely sensitive to sensory input, other people and their emotions, and their environment, which can make them more vulnerable to emotional flooding.4
- Men and boys: Historically, men and boys have not been taught to identify and healthily regulate their emotions, which can make emotions feel particularly distressing and overwhelming.
- People with attachment issues: Those who struggle with anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment styles often do not feel confident in their relationships. Being in a relationship can trigger emotions and beliefs about attachment that can induce emotional flooding.
- Those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): A defining symptom of PTSD is hyperarousal, which is primarily what emotional flooding is.
- Those experiencing anxiety disorders: Arousal symptoms are often present within anxiety disorders, sometimes alongside distressing cognitive distortions and negative internalized beliefs. These can trigger emotional flooding during conflict or difficult situations.
- People with depression: Major depressive disorder often includes feelings of excessive guilt, low mood, and immobilization, which can lay the groundwork for emotional flooding.
- Those with ADHD: A person with ADHD can be more prone to emotional flooding because they may struggle to relate to others or complete necessary tasks, which can trigger intense emotions. Difficulties with rejection sensitive dysphoria makes this risk even higher.
9 With Emotional Flooding
Learning how to cope with your emotions is essential when feeling overwhelmed. It can seem challenging to overcome symptoms associated with emotional flooding, but it is possible. Instead of retreating or avoiding the problem, it’s important to practice other forms of stress management.
Here are nine tips for coping with emotional flooding:
1. Practice Emotional Self-Care
Practicing emotional self-care is critical for people dealing with emotional flooding as it will increase your overall level of emotional resiliency. This can include anything that “recharges” your emotional battery, such as focusing on a hobby, spending conflict-free time with loved ones, or taking breaks when you need them.
2. Tune in to Your Emotions
The first step in changing your reaction to emotional flooding is increasing your overall awareness of your feelings. While this can be hard to do in times of high-stress, it is helpful to reflect after experiencing emotional flooding. Understanding the emotions and sensations that sent you into a state of overwhelm will help you to recognize them sooner in the future.
3. Increase Your Bodily Awareness
Many times, our emotions are accompanied by physical sensations. By becoming more aware of the bodily sensations that accompany your emotions, you will be able to better regulate them in order to avoid emotional flooding. This can be practiced by noticing how different portions of your body feel when you’re in a calm and relaxed state.
4. Perform an Emotional Audit
Once you can better identify sensations during times of stress, you can begin looking for certain people or situations that consistently lead to emotional flooding. This can help you tailor coping skills to those distinct triggers, or decide how and when you need to set boundaries.
5. Beef up Your Coping Skills
Working on outlining healthy coping skills can help you change your reaction from flooding to regulation. Regulation tools that focus on calming the physiological stress response in your body are likely to be the most effective, such as paced breathing, grounding techniques, and progressive muscle relaxation.
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6. Set Boundaries
Determining what you will and will not tolerate with anyone who you regularly communicate with is beneficial. This can allow you to better regulate yourself when interacting with others. Setting healthy boundaries can include breaking or limiting contact with toxic people, outlining the parameters for communication, explaining your needs, or setting time limitations for interactions.
7. Increase Positive Self-Talk
A big portion of what can make emotions feel so intense is our beliefs about what these feelings may say about us. For example, if you have a negative belief that you are a bad person, making a mistake is likely to trigger guilt and shame. Offer yourself some grace when you encounter difficult situations that have resulted in emotional flooding. Make a regular habit of this, whether by journaling or talking through your experience with a loved one.
8. Learn to Complete the Stress Cycle
Emotional flooding is a physiological stress response that works in a cycle. When this cycle is not completed properly, your body can hang onto residual stress.5 Completing the emotional flooding cycle includes processing stress and tension out of the body via exercise, talking to a trusted person, creativity, crying, and breathwork.
9. Address the Larger Causes
If emotional flooding occurs as part of a mental health disorder, doing the above mentioned tips may help, but are unlikely to stop you from experiencing overwhelm entirely. In these cases, seeing a trained mental health professional is imperative to healing the underlying cause of your emotional flooding.
How to Help Someone Experiencing Emotional Flooding
Seeing someone experience emotional flooding can be intense and make you helpless. However, there are several things that can help a person who is dealing with this–and also some that are important to avoid.
Below are ways to help someone experiencing emotional flooding:
- Focus on listening: If someone wants to talk through what they’re experiencing, revert to a listening role. Talking about your own experiences and interpretations can sometimes increase the other person’s overwhelm.
- Be empathetic and non-judgmental: A person experiencing emotional flooding is already feeling a surplus of negativity. It’s best to stick to statements of validation and avoid anything that may come across as judgmental.
- Don’t underestimate the power of your presence: You don’t always need to do or say the right thing in order to be helpful. Sometimes just sitting with a person so they know they aren’t alone can be encouraging. If you are too uncomfortable to sit with the person in silence, it may be more helpful to leave them alone for a while.
- Regulate yourself: Offering a healthy model of self-regulation to a loved one prone to emotional flooding can teach them to adopt better regulating skills themselves. To do this, focus on taking deep breaths and making sure you stay grounded and present.
- Provide a sense of autonomy: Emotional flooding often develops when a person feels powerless. Offer your help in specific ways so they can make a decision–this provides them with a small amount of control over their situation. For example, try asking, “would you like me to stay with you or leave you alone?”
When to Seek Professional Help
If tackling your frequent emotional flooding has proved unsuccessful, or you are experiencing other symptoms related to depression, anxiety, or PTSD, it may be beneficial to work with a trained mental health professional.
There are many options for beginning this process, such as using an online therapist directory. If you have a busy schedule or lack access to local mental health resources, there are many online therapy options as well. You do not have to go without support–consider reaching out for help.
Emotional flooding can be an extremely overwhelming and intense experience, but you do not need to live with it for the rest of your life. By working through your own triggers, learning to self-regulate, making healthy lifestyle changes, or working with a therapist, you can feel more confident when navigating difficult situations and emotions.