Are you getting emotionally flooded?
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your emotions have felt out of control, overwhelming, almost primitive in their intensity? You might recognise that this experience feels qualitatively different from being a little upset or anxious or frustrated. It is different because when one feels emotionally overwhelmed, one is triggered to such an extent that one experiences strong sensations physiologically (heart pounding, face flushing, trembling, shivering, shallow breaths, difficulty breathing, sweating) and goes into a primal flight, fight or freeze mode. At this point, thinking straight and communicating healthily becomes almost impossible. Our ability to manage our emotions in a healthy manner gets compromised. This experience is called emotional flooding and most of us have experienced it at various points in our lives.
Why is flooding problematic?
Flooding can lead to harmful behaviours that can jeopardise our interpersonal interactions and relationships. It can look like shouting, screaming, physical violence (fight mode), avoiding or escaping situations, defensiveness (flight mode) or shutting down, stonewalling, drowsiness, unresponsiveness (freeze mode). These behaviours when operating in the context of relationships in particular, can be very counter- productive.
What triggers flooding?
To answer this, it is important to understand how our bodies work. Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, explains two systems that our bodies possess – system 1 and system 2. System 1, which he calls First Responder, operates quickly, intuitively and almost involuntarily. System 2, on the hand, is slower to respond, more deliberate and logical and is associated with executive thinking and functioning.
We often experience flooding when our bodies perceive a highly triggering threat. This threat could be of different kinds and different for different people (a partner yelling, a loved one shutting you out, a boss criticising), and is often entwined with our past experiences. When we experience such a threat, system 1 kicks in first, setting off an alarm and driving the body into a flooded state. System 2 at this point remains shut down, and as a result of this, thinking logically and rationally and resolving conflict goes out the window and you find yourself immersed in a highly reactive, emotionally disturbed state, unable to respond in ways aligned to your values.
Can flooding be managed and if so, how do we manage it?
The good news is that flooding can definitely be managed. The first step towards managing flooding and the underlying emotional disturbance is to recognise that one is flooded, basis one’s physiological reactions and to verbalise or name this state to oneself. E.g., I am feeling flooded right now. The next step is to self-regulate through deep breathing / diaphragmatic breathing or relaxing the muscles of the body. Self-regulation can help to regulate system 1 and activate system 2. It is only once the flight / fight / freeze mode switches off and the rest and digest part of the brain comes back online, that one feels more grounded. Grounding can help one think more logically and do the subsequent work of managing the emotional disturbance – this work involves identifying the unhealthy negative emotion experienced, unpacking the thought patterns sustaining it and finally, actively overcoming it to respond with intentionality in keeping with one’s goals and values.
So, if you have experienced flooding recently, know that you are not alone and that, with practice, and sometimes therapeutic help, you can learn to get better at recognising and dealing with it in a sustained way.