Emotional Flooding: What It Is, Symptoms, Dealing With It

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Relationships are difficult. Disagreements and arguments are inevitable.

Some people believe that a relationship without fighting or arguments isn’t healthy because people will inherently disagree. And if there is no disagreement, they believe that means that someone’s needs in the relationship are not being met.

That can be true sometimes, though it also depends on how you define fighting or arguing. There are some people out there who have a cool demeanor. Others have worked on their emotional self-management to the point where they no longer have those severe emotional reactions.

But on the flip side of the coin, you have emotional reactions in the extreme. This process is called “emotional flooding.” It is different from just having an emotional reaction.

And if you’ve found your way to this article, you probably want to know what it is, right?

Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you avoid and/or manage emotional flooding episodes. You may want to try speaking to one via BetterHelp.com for quality care at its most convenient.

What Is Emotional Flooding?

Different mental health problems can cause undesirable effects on a person’s mental wiring. You can see this sort of thing all throughout different mental health problems.

People who have been through some ugly things may have PTSD. For example, child abuse survivors may have difficulty forming relationships and managing their emotions. Domestic violence survivors may have difficulty allowing themselves to be vulnerable and open with future partners because they still have a conditioned fear of reprisal.

Emotional flooding is a physiological process in which an argument or disagreement triggers the Fight or Flight response. If you haven’t experienced the Fight or Flight response, it’s more accurate to call it a Fight, Flight, or Freeze response. When confronted with a situation that would invoke that response, it can cause someone to snap into hostility, run away, or just freeze up.

This process is physiological, feels raw, and is almost involuntary unless you’re a person who’s been through a lot of training to work through it. That may include people like doctors, soldiers, police officers, first responders, and others working in professions where they face danger regularly.

What does emotional flooding look like?

Imagine you’re in an argument with a partner. It’s getting heated, and you’re going at each other over a problem that you’re having in the relationship. And at some point during the argument, your partner just drastically changes the way they’re behaving in the argument.

They might seem as though they are emotionally snapping from anger into pure rage, though it doesn’t have to be anger. Sometimes they may try to end the argument by just leaving the area or trying to be alone. And sometimes, the person’s emotional state may close off, and they shut down, rendering them unable to communicate. This is the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response in action.

This is a physiological process that happens when a person is flooded or overwhelmed by their emotions.

But let’s consider another way to look at it. You’ve probably heard the word “triggered” thrown around. Emotional flooding is when the person is triggered into a mental state that they can’t necessarily exert control over. A good example is a trauma survivor being triggered by a situation related to their trauma.

In the case of emotional flooding, it may come down to what the person is seeing in the argument. For example, consider a person who is a child abuse or domestic violence survivor. They were constantly screamed at by their abuser. Their brain may kick-off that survival mechanism should they run into a situation later where they are being screamed at. And it’s certainly not limited to romantic relationships. It could be a terrible boss at work or jerk customers making your life miserable.

Their brain kicks off that Fight, Flight, or Freeze response because they are registering “DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!” And their brain is trying to help them survive.

Symptoms Of Emotional Flooding

An emotionally flooded person is experiencing more than just a drastic state of emotional disturbance. They will be feeling other physiological responses in their body such as stress, muscles tightening up, a change in body temperature like getting too hot, or feeling sick to their stomach.

On the cognitive side of things, thought processes may become illogical, where it’s difficult to string thoughts together. For example, the person might zone out and not be able to really hear or process the argument.

Let’s be clear: it’s perfectly reasonable to be angry or upset sometimes. Anger is a healthy emotion because it’s your brain telling you that you have been wronged or that something is wrong.

The difference between anger and emotional flooding comes down to severity. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to properly use anger management techniques once someone has reached the state of being flooded. Furthermore, once a person is in that flooded state, it can be impossible to get them to think rationally until after it passes.

Their nervous system is in overdrive and overloaded. And part of that Fight, Flight, or Freeze response is a reduction of activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of your brain most responsible for higher cognition.

The Problem With Unhealthy Coping Habits

People who have been through traumatic experiences will often develop unhealthy coping habits to survive what they’re going through. In many situations, these unhealthy coping habits are formed subconsciously by the brain to ensure survival. However, the person may not actively choose how these habits are formed.

Some examples include:

Child Abuse: The parent is screaming at and hurting their child, so the child grows into an adult conditioned to shut down when faced with hostility. Being quiet or freezing up is how the child learns to avoid being harmed. The child may also compulsively lie to keep their parents from finding out the truth, so they aren’t beaten or screamed at. Those habits will be carried into adulthood unless they’re addressed.

Living in Poverty: Poverty causes people to develop unhealthy habits because they often live in a steady state of anxiety and fear. Nearly 11 million children in the United States (at the time of writing) live in poverty. A child that lives in poverty may have food insecurity where they hoard food because they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They may have a skewed sense of normal because it was normal for them to have their power and water cut off every few months. Again, these kinds of habits can carry over into adulthood. The adult may have anxiety over things going well, hoard food, or hoard money because they’re conditioned for everything to fall apart easily.

How does this relate to emotional flooding? Well, it’s similar in that the person is not choosing to respond that way. Instead, it’s a way they were conditioned, likely from being abused as a child, that carries over into adulthood.

And while these unhealthy coping habits may have helped that person survive the ugly things they were going through, they can destroy healthy living and relationships.

That’s why it’s necessary to develop better coping skills, healthier habits, and put those traumas to rest.

How To Manage Emotional Flooding

It is a good idea to seek professional help from one of the therapists at BetterHelp.com as professional therapy can be highly effective in helping you to cope with and control your emotional response to situations that trigger you.

Emotional flooding usually doesn’t happen from 0 to 100 MPH in a second. Instead, there is often a buildup that leads to extreme emotions.

Now, that buildup may not take place over a long period. It may be just a few minutes, but it’s usually not instantaneous. If it is instantaneous, that may be more in the realm of a mental illness or personality disorder. People with anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and others may experience emotional flooding as a symptom or side effect of their mental illness.

With that in mind, here are some ways to develop your management and keep your mind quiet.

1. Examine past arguments you’ve had.

You’ll want to look at arguments or negative situations where you have experienced emotional flooding and those where you haven’t.

Remember, you’re looking for extremes in emotional reactions. Try to find commonalities in what triggered that overwhelming emotional state. If you can find commonalities, you can be more aware of not entering into those circumstances.

Of course, arguments can’t always be avoided, but you can try to avoid arguing with people who are screaming and yelling.

2. Learn to identify when your emotions are escalating.

You want to figure out how you feel when your emotions start to shift from simmering to boiling. That way, you know when to take additional measures to keep those emotions from heating further and boiling over.

For example, you may ask to discontinue the argument and come back to it later when you’ve cooled off. But, on the other hand, you may want to take a fifteen-minute break to get some fresh air and clear your head.

And listen, many people repeat the advice to “never go to bed angry at your partner!” But it’s not always the best advice. Sometimes it’s a good idea to go to bed angry, particularly if you’re tired. Being tired can make you more emotionally volatile, making people prone to a short temper and impatience.

One or both of you may wake up the next morning, realize it was a dumb argument, exchange apologies, and move on. You couldn’t talk it out last night because you were so emotionally spent that you just couldn’t see what was going on.

3. Reduce the circumstances that can cause emotional volatility.

In addition, develop healthier habits to cope with stress. That may include reducing caffeine, energy drink, or stimulant intake. It may be improving your sleep hygiene so you can get deeper, more restful sleep. You may also consider some emotional management therapy or classes to learn better skills for defusing your emotions before it rockets out of control.

4. Develop strategies with your partner.

Hopefully, you have a supportive partner that will want to try to help you through whatever it is you’re dealing with. If they are supportive, you can communicate this problem ahead of time. That way, they can put more work into keeping their cool to prevent escalation or identify when you might be getting overwhelmed.

You may also want to try sitting down and holding hands while you have your difficult conversation. The tactile feedback from touching someone you care about can help some people stay grounded.

Discuss ahead of time that you will both respect boundaries if either of you indicates you are too close. One way you can do that is with a safe word. If you or your partner are getting to a place where you might be escalating too hard, saying something like “red light” could indicate that you need to stop the argument to cool down. Use a safe word that wouldn’t be something you’d typically say in an argument. “Stop” isn’t always a good word because it can be used in the process of the argument.

Words like “red light,” “falcon,” or “Paris” work better because chances are good you won’t be using those words in conversation. Unless, of course, you’re arguing about whether or not you saw a falcon when you were stopped at that red light during your trip to Paris. But what are the chances that’s going to happen?

5. Try creating a mental picture of the best of your partner.

The idea is to prevent an extreme swing by remembering that your partner is generally a good person. Think about the positive things they do, put into the world, and do for you. Try to think about what attracted you to them in the first place. What caused you to fall in love with them?

These positive things can help offset anger or a crash into a non-functional space. This will also help you keep a more balanced perspective on your partner.

It’s okay to be angry with them about something. You just don’t want to be so angry that you’re irrational. Instead, you want to act reasonably and lovingly with one another, even when arguing.

6. Work on healing your traumas that cause emotional flooding.

People who have unresolved trauma often experience more intense or complicated emotions. By addressing the traumas that cause these emotional responses, you can help blunt or dull them.

Processing trauma is difficult, but it is something you can do. You may want to try consulting with a trauma-informed counselor to better address the issue. Different modalities of therapy can be used to address and blunt trauma. EMDR is a well-studied, pretty effective therapy for confronting trauma. Talk about your situation with a mental health professional and ask them if it would be a good option for you.

BetterHelp.com is a website where you can connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.

And, fair warning, addressing your trauma is like opening Pandora’s Box. We tend to lock those things away inside our internal Pandora’s Box, so they don’t destroy us. But once you open that box, it’s going to be rough. You will likely feel emotionally volatile. Things may get worse before they get better.

If you decide to confront your trauma, keep going to your appointments no matter how much you don’t want to or dread it. Stopping in the middle of the process of healing trauma can cause you big problems with your emotions or well-being. Commit to seeing it through to the end if you’re going to do it. If you’re not ready for that, it’s okay. Do it when you feel strong enough to do it or when you get tired of it messing up your life and relationships.

Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.

Click here if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.

And lastly, this article is for informative purposes only. It is not intended as a replacement for the assistance of a trained mental health professional or medical advice. Do seek help if you find your emotions are difficult to control or disrupt your ability to live your life.

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About The Author

Jack Nollan is a person who has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years now. Jack is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspective from the side of the mental health consumer. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.