What is Emotional Flooding? 4 Ways to Cope and Stop It
Have you ever been in a situation where it felt like your emotions sat in the driver’s seat and took hold of the wheel? That all your sense of reasoning ended up in the back seat? We have all been there at some point in our lives. We have all experienced this out-of-control feeling of not being able to set those feelings aside and letting it consume us.
In today's article, we explore what emotional flooding is, what causes it, and how to stop it from happening.
What is Emotional Flooding? A Definition
Now, we can all resonate with having emotional reactions when dealing with those close to us. However, there is a difference between experiencing strong emotions, and being so absorbed in these emotions that we cannot even cope normally or communicate effectively. The experience of being overwhelmed by strong emotions is called emotional flooding.
Emotional flooding can be experienced when a situation evokes two or more emotions—or even a very strong one—that feels overwhelming and uncontrollable. More often than not, it often relates to the experience of negative emotions.
2 Causes of Emotional Flooding
According to research, there are primarily two causes that are behind the experience of emotional flooding. One explains flooding in evolutionary terms, while the other relates it to traumatic experiences.
When we experience emotional flooding, we excite our fight/flight/freeze response. This can bring about a wave of bodily sensations and increase the release of stress hormones. This can be expressed through feelings of anxiety, difficulty thinking clearly, increased heart rate and/or shallow breathing.
Role of Trauma
Each person is different in how they experience emotional flooding. Emotional flooding typically occurs when a situation is threatening and triggers past traumatic experiences. As a result, individuals who have a history of trauma are particularly vulnerable to experiencing emotional flooding. This is commonly the case with individuals that have a disorganized attachment style.
To give an example, think of a person that is in a relationship and has a disorganized attachment style due to traumatic experiences that occurred in their past. Now, their present partner said that they are not able to visit them this weekend, this consequently triggers strong feelings of rejection and abandonment which ensue a flood of feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety, and resentment.
6 Signs and Examples of Emotional Flooding
Here are a few signs to look out for if you suspect you tend to experience emotional flooding:
1. Feeling overwhelmed: Emotions can sometimes get the best of us. When we feel a sudden rush of emotions, it can be difficult to identify which emotion it is we are feeling. In addition, we get an influx of emotions that can hit at a time where we are least prepared for it. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed and at a loss for how to handle it.
2. Suddenly feeling anxious: Feeling out of control is scary. Noticing our emotions take over, where we feel like we no longer have any control of ourselves can cause us to feel quite nervous and unsure.
3. Feeling unsafe: Your fight or flight response flares up and the sudden rush of emotions can result in several physiological responses (e.g., increased heart beat) that can trick us into thinking we are in danger. Our natural response to danger is to fight or to flee. So in such a situation where our body gives us the signals we are in danger, we will react as if we are in a threatening situation.
4. Difficulty identifying or explaining the emotion you are feeling: Being overwhelmed with emotions, whether it may be a single strong one or multiple conflicting ones, can create quite some confusion within ourselves. The rush of emotions can be difficult to identify because of the speed at which it arose, and the combination with various other emotions. In addition, the overwhelming feeling can make it especially more challenging to be able to express ourselves.
5. Difficulty focusing: When our emotions take charge, our reasoning takes a back seat. We are completely taken over by these emotions and become absorbed by those feelings. In addition, given the activation of the threat response, our brains automatically put priority on our emotions and less priority on reasoning and other cognitive abilities such as focusing.
6. Physiological reaction: With strong emotions come bodily reactions. For example, as we get angry, we feel our body growing warmer, our muscles tensing, heavier breathing and a quicker heart rate. If we are flooded with several emotions, various parts of our physiology can be activated simultaneously and add to the feelings of being overwhelmed.
The Negative Impact of Emotional Flooding
Emotional flooding is a sign of unhealthy emotion regulation. As such, routinely engaging in emotional flooding can result in some negative consequences in both our personal lives and our relationships.
Emotional flooding results in our emotions leading our behaviours. While beneficial in some circumstances, this can lead us to make irrational and sudden decisions that can have a negative impact in the long run. When we feel emotionally flooded, our thinking brain gets pushed aside. When this happens, the ability for us to think about grey areas, stay aware of reality, and coordinate our lives becomes almost impossible.
Being triggered by a partner is hardly out of the ordinary. Spending a lot of time together, and being two individuals with your own set of opinions can often lead to conflict. However, when the stress and emotions get to you, it can have a lasting negative impact on the future of your relationship. This can lead to long arguments, shouting matches, and even ignoring and insulting each other.
Stopping Emotional Flooding: 4 Ways to Cope
Now that we understand what emotional flooding entails, what causes it, and how it can impact our lives, let's delve into how to stop it and learn better mechanisms to cope with it.
In times where we feel overwhelmed or captured by our emotions, it is important to know how to help ourselves out so that we can move forward. Remember to engage in a bit of compassionate self-talk when you are self-soothing. When we are experiencing strong negative emotions, we often forget to speak kindly to ourselves. Yet, it is during this time that we need it the most.
In addition, learn how to ground yourself. Making bodily contact with objects in our environment stabilises our physiological reactions to being caught up in our emotions.
2. Practice mindfulness and breathing
Mindfulness is helpful as it gets your attention back to the present moment, and away from the invasion of intense emotions. Try some mindfulness exercises or even a mindful walk in nature.
Engaging in breathing exercises acts in the opposite way of a fight-or-flight response. When we focus on our breathing, we send a message to the brain that there is no danger.
The next time you feel an emotion that overwhelms you, try telling yourself something like this: “Okay… I am feeling really stressed right now. I can feel my palms sweating and my heart beating hard”. In doing so, you will notice that you are experiencing emotional flooding and will prepare yourself to get out of this state.
4. Take a break
Know when it is time to stop the conversation or activity that is overwhelming you. If need be, don’t be afraid to let others know when you need a break from the conversation. It can be as simple as telling people “Let’s take a break. I’m feeling flooded by emotions right now.”
Important to knowing when to take a break, is to know your triggers: where your limits are, which topics of conversation are the most difficult and the signs of being flooded. Knowing your triggers is important to gain perspective and allow your reasoning to take back a bit more control. Remember not to avoid the conversation though. Make sure to revisit the conversation or situation again when you are feeling calmer.
If you find yourself in a situation where you are flooded with anxious feelings and are having difficulty coping with the onslaught of emotions, remember to give yourself some time. Sometimes, all we need is a couple minutes to process our emotions and remind ourselves that we are safe. Sometimes, we just need a couple minutes for our nervous system to relax. Remember, that many people struggle with emotional flooding, you are not alone. With time and practice you will get a handle of it and learn how to better manage your emotions. We wish you well in your journey. Take care.
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