Learn how to build your own emotional life raft

True to its name, emotional flooding is a surge of intense emotions that can quickly overwhelm you. In this overstimulated state, your body can shut down and it becomes difficult to manage your feelings or think clearly. This can cause you to mentally withdraw, experience emotional outbursts, or go into a flight, fight, or freeze response.

The term emotional flooding was described by psychologist John Gottman to describe the “flood” of stress hormones that can emerge in situations that evoke feelings of helplessness and threat, such as a fight with your partner that feels insoluble. This physiological arousal can make it very difficult to resolve conflicts rationally.

At a Glance

We all deal with sudden, powerful emotions every now and then. It can be a helpless feeling, especially when the emotional flooding comes without warning. There’s nothing wrong with a good cry, but when it interferes with our daily lives, it’s only natural to figure out a different way to handle the situation.

Fortunately, by learning to identify your triggers, trying exercises like mindfulness and deep breathing, and committing to a self-care practice that works for you, you can learn to manage these feelings. With the right strategies, the next time you feel an emotional flood coming, it will ultimately feel more like an emotional puddle—still in your way, but something you can prepare for. Be kind to yourself along the way and reach out to trusted friends, family, or support groups as needed.

Causes and Triggers of Emotional Flooding

While anyone is susceptible to emotional flooding, people with past traumas, chronic stress, genetic predispositions, and otherwise dysregulated temperaments may be more likely to experience this intense set of feelings.

Negative thought patterns can also exacerbate emotional flooding, which means that those with a history of depression or heightened levels of anxiety—particularly people with tendencies to catastrophize, have “all-or-nothing” thinking, or hold negative internalized beliefs about themselves—are more prone to this overwhelming emotional experience.

Additionally, there are certain personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, that are characterized by intense and rapidly shifting emotions. As a result, individuals with certain clinically diagnosable personality disorders can be more susceptible to emotional flooding.

In the moment, emotional flooding can be triggered by a variety of stressors. These include being reminded of or digging into past trauma or experiences, current life stressors or conflicts at home or work, or a significant loss or grief. Other common causes of emotional flooding can include relationship issues, ongoing anxiety, and substance abuse.


Recognizing the Signs of Emotional Flooding

Emotional flooding looks different from person to person. However, there are some hallmark signs you can look for. Felder says that these include the following:

Emotional/Mental Symptoms: 

  • Feeling overpowered by your emotions, as if you are no longer in control
  • Inability to think clearly
  • Heightened likelihood of making quick or irrational decisions
  • Negative self-talk
  • Racing thoughts
  • Crying spells or feeling like you’re on the verge of tears
  • Desire to immediately flee or escape the situation

Physical Symptoms 

  • Increased heart rate
  • Changes in your breathing pattern
  • Sensation of knots in your stomach
  • Sweating
  • Shaking

The difficulty of these symptoms is that they can cascade into further feelings of panic. When you can’t see through the tears and can’t think through the racing thoughts, it’s tough to really slow down work through it.

The Impact of Emotional Flooding on Mental Health and Relationships

Emotional flooding can an overwhelming experience, and very hard on us both in the moment and over the long term. When left unchecked, it can significantly impact both our mental health and relationships.

These uncontrolled emotions can lead to increased anxiety and depression, strained relationships due to uncontrolled outbursts, and low self-esteem.

Additionally, people experiencing frequent emotional flooding may have a difficult time problem-solving and making decisions and may isolate or withdraw from relationships altogether as a means of avoiding their triggers.

That said, it’s crucial to regain control over your emotions and body in order to have meaningful interpersonal relationships, improved mental health, and an overall sense of well-being. It’s an ongoing and challenging process, but the hard work pays off in improved confidence with your decision-making, an ease with problem-solving and dealing with conflicts, and meaningful friendships and relationships.

Think of it in the same way that you think about learning new information. Can you learn without being exposed in some way to the thing you’re trying to learn about? Of course not! That’s not to say we should welcome emotional flooding. Rather, we can look at it as an opportunity to get better at dealing with it the next time. Each time you deal with difficult emotions and come out the other side feeling OK, you’ve reinforced that you can overcome them, and have strengthened the mental muscles you will need to flex the next time it happens.

Effective Strategies for Managing Emotional Flooding

If you suspect you’re dealing with emotional flooding, the following techniques can help you regain control of your emotional state and feel more at-ease in your day-to-day life.

Identify Your Triggers

One of the first steps in avoiding an emotional flood is knowing what has the potential to cause it in the first place.

Becoming aware of your triggers and developing the tools to manage them when they arise can allow you to proactively avoid them. Being able to recognize the early signs of emotional flooding can help people to be more equipped to move through it.

These can range from certain conversation topics or people in your life, to not getting enough sleep, to not routinely moving your body in healthy ways.

Breathing Exercises

Intentional breathing exercises—like 4-7-8 or box breathing—can temporarily slow down the nervous system and can get you out of a heightened mood.

You can also try alternate-nostril breathing—a technique used in yoga—which a 2017 demonstrated can reduce blood pressure. The process involves blocking off one nostril and inhaling and exhaling through the other, then switching in a consistent pattern.

Mindfulness and Grounding Practices

When in the height of a flood, try the 5-4-3-2-1 sensory grounding practice. In this exercise, you try to find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.

This helps you divert your attention away from any racing thoughts or overwhelming emotions and instead bring your attention to the present moment.

Practice More Self-Compassion

It’s so important to be aware of your internal dialogue and the things you’re saying to yourself in these emotionally heightened moments, Felder says. In fact, research shows that practicing self-compassion improves your overall well-being.

If you catch yourself engaging in negative self-talk, redirect and say something positive about yourself. If you wouldn’t say something to a friend, family member, or pet, then you shouldn’t say it about yourself.

Develop A Self-Care Practice

Build up an arsenal of self-care tools that you enjoy and make you feel good. This could be working out, going on walks, sleeping, as well as things like crafting, reading, or taking a relaxing bath. Find what works for you and incorporate self-care and stress management strategies into your daily routine.

Consider Therapy

You don’t have to face the overwhelming experience of ongoing emotional flooding on your own. The above coping techniques can certainly help, but seeking professional help can expedite your path to wellbeing.

Talking to a therapist can be an incredibly helpful way to identify patterns in your thinking and approach to challenging situations and can help to equip you with more effective coping strategies.