How to cope with emotional flooding
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 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 them consume us.
What is emotional flooding?
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 can’t even cope normally or communicate effectively. The experience of being overwhelmed when experiencing strong emotions is called emotional flooding.
Emotional flooding can be experienced when a situation evokes two or more emotions - or even one very strong one - that feel overwhelming. More often than not, it is an experience of negative emotions.
When we experience emotional flooding, we excite our fight / flight / freeze response. This can bring about a wave of bodily sensations and increase stress hormones. This can be expressed through feelings of anxiety, difficulty thinking clearly, increased heart rate and / or shallow breathing.
Causes relating to trauma
Each person is different in how they experience emotional flooding. The core, however, is that when we feel threatened, we can become emotionally flooded. This can stem from a history of trauma. Emotional flooding can come about because of a previous experience that is triggered and becomes too much to handle. For example, typically, in relationships, feelings of rejection or being abandoned can be that trigger. If we feel like our partner is being distant, our abandonment fears can get triggered and we could get flooded by anger.
6 signs of Emotional flooding
Here are a few signs to look out for if you have suspicions of engaging in emotional flooding:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Suddenly feeling anxious
- Feeling unsafe: your fight or flight response flares up
- Difficulty identifying or explaining the emotion you’re feeling
- Difficulty focusing
- Physiological reaction (e.g. breathing heavier)
What is the impact of emotional flooding?
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 each other.
Four ways to cope with emotional flooding
Here are four ways that can help you cope when your emotions become overwhelming:
In times when we feel overwhelmed or captured by our emotions, it’s important to know how to help ourselves out so that we can move forwards. 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.
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’s 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 knowing your triggers: where your limits are, which topics of conversation are the most difficult and the signs of being flooded. Understanding 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 when you are feeling calmer.
The bottom line
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 of minutes to process our emotions and remind ourselves that we are safe; we just need time for our nervous system to relax.