We’ve all been in a situation where our emotions take the driver’s seat and that out-of-control, animal-like feeling of not being able to step back from those feelings. While we can all attest to having emotional reactions when we are dealing with our loved ones, there’s a difference between getting a little upset and frustrated over who did the dishes last versus feeling so overwhelmed by our feelings that we instantly go into flight-or-fight mode and can’t even think let alone communicate straight. If the latter sounds familiar, chances are you’ve experienced emotional flooding.
“In its most simple terms, emotional flooding is the experience of being overwhelmed when strong emotions take over, producing an influx of physiological sensations, an increase of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, often resulting in difficulty accessing our resources for calming down,” Joree Rose LMFT tells SheKnows. “When we get flooded, emotions can overtake our present moment experience, triggering a flight/flight/freeze response in our brain and in our body.”
According to Rose you might experience an increase in heart rate short or shallow breaths, a pit in the stomach, feelings of anxiety, constriction of the throat, tightness in the chest, sweating, or difficulty in thinking clearly. “There is a reciprocal relationship between the emotional brain and our executive functioning; our emotional brain is located in the center part of our brain, and when it gets triggered, our amygdala, or emotional alarm, fires off, and literally shuts down our prefrontal cortex, which is our most evolved part of our brain and where our tools of logic, reason and rationality reside,” says Rose.
In other words, any sort of reasonable response goes out the window and suddenly you’re down the rabbit hole of negative thoughts and extreme feelings, both emotionally and physically, that make it impossible for you to stay grounded.
What triggers it?
While what triggers one person to experience emotional flooding can be very different for someone else, Jordan Pickell, MCP RCC, says “At the most basic level, we become emotionally flooded when we sense that something is threatening. Our bodies and brains can recognize threat from something out in the world, an interaction with someone we love, or even a feeling we have inside.” What we experience as threatening is typically deeply entwined with our past experiences, says Pickell, and is more than a direct threat of bodily harm.
“We can experience rejection as threatening. We can experience our partner turning away as threatening. Some people even experience ‘good’ emotions like joy as threatening,” says Pickell.
A simple thought, an assumption, a memory, a heated conversation, an emotional sensitivity can produce the same physiological response as an actual threat, according to Rose. “So when you experience flooding, it could be because there was an actual trigger that reactivated an old threat or an overwhelming emotion that feels really heavy to hold, and your brain is going into protection mode.”
Who is more likely to experience emotional flooding?
“Although we all experience emotional flooding at some points in our lives, those of us who are prone to emotional flooding have been changed by unsafe or traumatic experiences so that our brains and bodies are ready to react to threat in order to protect ourselves,” says Pickell.
While anyone can experience emotional flooding, Rose says that according to marriage researcher John Gottman, men experience flooding 80 percent more of the time than women, which can lead to defensiveness, stonewalling or shutting down. “This could just perhaps be a result of men not being socialized in how to name, accept and experience their emotions; rather they’ve been socialized to shut them down, which can only be effective for so long until they bubble up,” Rose says.
What do you do when you’re in the middle of an emotional flooding episode?
Rose recommends two ways to work yourself through emotional flooding.:The first is to breathe, and the second is to name it.
“Breathing activates the rest and digest part of our brain, which is the opposite of flight/fight/freeze,” she says. “This is when our brain receives the message that there is no threat, and our heart rate slows, our breathing becomes deeper, blood flows back into the internal organs, and we feel a sense of calm.” When you take a deep breath, it activates the Vagus nerve in your spine, says Rose, which travels all the way up your brain stem, and literally presses down on the rest and digest part of your brain.
Naming it, says Rose, would be to say to yourself or aloud something like: Wow, I’m really overwhelmed right now. I can feel my heart racing and my blood boiling.
“Studies show that naming what you are experiencing calms down the amygdala, while also creating some space between you and the emotion,” says Rose. “In that space you can observe it, without it defining you, and also take a moment to decide what to do about it.”
Pickell suggests that once you are able to notice you can experience emotional flooding, you can experiment with ways of shifting out of it. “Start with what already works for you. What do you do when you feel overwhelmed? Maybe you do something that distract you like watching a show, putting together your grocery list, or thinking of a funny memory. Maybe you do something calming like wrapping yourself in a blanket or talking to a friend.”
Then, she says to pick two or three things for your go-to strategy for the next time you realize you are emotionally flooded. “When you bring yourself back from emotional flooding, you will feel more grounded and empowered. As you practice these skills of bringing yourself back from being overwhelmed, you are grooving new neuropathways and re-training your brain and body to recognize you are safe,” she says. “Over time, what seemed like an automatic process does not happen as often or as easily. When it does happen, you are more confident you can shift out of it.
How to share with your partner about what you’re experiencing
“One of my most favorite tools is to name what is arising, whether it’s to yourself, or the person you’re closest with that you want to make sure is supportive of your experience,” says Rose. “This sounds like, ‘Wow, I’m noticing I’m having a strong reaction with what’s coming up. I’m feeling my heart race, a tightness in my throat making it hard to swallow, and a pit in my stomach. I’m even feeling like I can’t think straight and I’m afraid if I don’t take a minute to just pause and calm myself down, that I’m going to say something I don’t mean or I’m just going to feel worse. Can you be patient with me before finishing this conversation, or can you just give me a hug?’”
Pickell says that it’s important for couples to cultivate a practice of caring for each other when one of you gets overwhelmed. “Even when we have difficult conversations, even when we disagree, we love each other and want to make our partners feel safe,” says Pickell. “What does it look like when your partner is emotionally flooded? What helps them come back from being overwhelmed? What do they need? It can be helpful to have this conversation with each other when you are both calm. Tell your partner what it looks like when you are overwhelmed and what they can do to help you stay grounded. It might be touching you on the arm, or telling you ‘I love you.’ When you are having difficult conversations, make eye contact, sit facing each other. Take deep breaths. Speak softly and slowly. Remember it’s okay to take a break from the conversation.”
When is therapy an option?
Both Rose and Pickell say therapy is always an option if you and/or your partner are experiencing emotional flooding. “A skillful therapist will be able to help you in recognizing your patterns regarding not only what might trigger emotional flooding, but help you identify how you’ve been coping when it occurs, and then guide you in creating new habits and patterns that can create more compassion and ease around difficult emotions,” says Rose.
Adds Pickell: “For some people, emotional flooding can be such an everyday occurrence, they feel powerless to stop it. If you experience emotional flooding often and you find it difficult to shift out of it, reach out to a therapist. As entrenched as this pattern is, with support, this is absolutely something we have the ability to shift. The practice of shifting the way we relate to our emotions is fundamental to our work in therapy. There are more options than being overtaken by our feelings or shutting them out completely. When we are attuned to ourselves and we are confident in our ability to move through intense emotional experiences, we dare to live and love more boldly.”
A version of this story was published February 2020.