One of the biggest relationship challenges that people struggle with is emotional flooding. It’s something that happens to everyone sometimes, and if you don’t know how to respond to it, it can escalate conflict and create disconnection. Fortunately, many of the steps you can take to resolve it are pretty simple. Not necessarily easy, but simple.
What is Emotional Flooding?
Think back on a time when you were surprised by bad news. Maybe your partner told you that they wanted to break up. Maybe you got fired from a job. Maybe you got word that a loved one was in the hospital. Try to recall how that felt.
Did you feel a rush of adrenaline in your body? Did your face get warm? Did you hear a ringing in your ears? Or maybe your pulse quickened and your breath got shallow. On an emotional level, perhaps you felt waves of anxiety or panic or rage. In that moment, your body was saturated with adrenaline and emotion. That’s flooding.
Flooding happens when intense feelings, thoughts, or sensations overwhelm your ability to integrate them into the present moment. Your system doesn’t know what to do. Your ability to think clearly about the situation goes out the window and your fight/flight/freeze reactions kick in.
Emotional flooding can manifest in a few different ways. Your blood pressure might rise and cause a headache. You might breathe irregularly or go into hyperventilation. Your speech might become labored, or it might become pressured and come blasting out like a firehose. You might feel confused, or have difficulty thinking or responding to questions. You might feel a range of emotions such as anger, panic, frustration, or boredom with the situation.
Flooding can be difficult to identify because it’s diffuse. It’s a lot easier to recognize a pattern when there’s a clear and specific feeling. But flooding can be feel like a low-level discomfort throughout your body, which is harder to pin down. In that way, it’s similar to being hangry (hungry + angry) because you don’t realize that it’s happening until it comes out at someone else. And even then, you might not be able to see it.
That’s especially true when the escalation of intensity is gradual. A sudden shock, like receiving bad news or having someone yell at you, is a lot simpler to identify than a slow increase of stress. But either way, once you get flooded, the fight/flight/freeze reaction switches on and all bets are off.
These are instinctive reactions to situations that we perceive as dangerous. While they might be useful when we’re being attacked by a wild animal, they’re less helpful in our relationships. Unfortunately, our threat-detection systems haven’t caught up to modern life, and the emotional flooding often makes the situation worse rather than resolving it.
Emotional Flooding is Normal
One of the most important things you can do is accept that flooding isn’t something we choose to do. It’s something that is programmed into our nervous systems. We’ve each had times when we were overwhelmed or overloaded, and those experiences trained our nervous systems to see similar situations as a threat.
That pattern is reinforced if we haven’t learned the skills we need to self-regulate during challenging situations. For example, if I had never been taught how to stay grounded and self-regulated when someone is angry at me, I won’t have those skills. So when my partner gets angry, I won’t know how to respond and it’ll feel like a threat. That makes it likely that I’ll go into emotional flooding.
I’ve heard it suggested that men are more likely to flood than women. In my experience, that’s at least partly because boys and men don’t learn emotional skills as often as girls and women do. That makes men more vulnerable to flooding because it takes less stress to go into overwhelm. However, I’ve also talked to some transgender men who report that taking testosterone makes it more difficult to self-regulate their emotions. That suggests that there may be some hormonal/biological factors in addition to the socio-cultural ones.
Wherever it comes from, it’s not something we can ever have total control over. We’ll all have times when we aren’t able to self-regulate, which means that emotional flooding will happen.
Identifying the Flooding
It can be tricky to recognize when you’re feeling flooded. If it was caused by a shock, you might feel a rush of adrenaline, or heat moving through your body. But even then, you might not notice it if the sensations of flooding are quieter or more subtle than the stress of the current situation. For example, if your boss yells at you and you get flooded, you might not be aware of your physical experience because you’re more focused on being shouted at.
For many folks, it takes practice to be able to notice that they’re flooded. At first, you might not perceive it until you’re well into it. If you pay attention to it, you’ll get faster at it and you’ll be able to identify the pattern earlier in the process. That makes things much easier because you can take care of the flooding at a lower intensity.
You might find it helpful to ask a trusted support person (a partner, friend, therapist, coach, etc.) to gently tell you when they think you might be flooded. If it happens, take a moment to take a deep breath or two, and check in with yourself. What are you feeling in your body? Are your thoughts racing? Do you feel stressed? If so, you’re probably flooded. Take a note about how you feel so you can try to notice it yourself in the future.
Dealing With Emotional Flooding
Fortunately, there are some simple tools we can use to take care of the flooding. The most important one is to slow down and step back from whatever is overwhelming your system.
That can be tricky when the catalyst for the flooding is a conflict or a heated discussion with a partner because it can look like disengagement. I find that when someone gets worked up during a fight and then storms out of the house, it’s often because they’re flooded and they need to take some space to calm down. But if you do it in a way that feels like you’re disengaging from or abandoning your partner, it’s going to accelerate the conflict.
You’ll probably find it more helpful to tell your partner something like, “I’m feeling flooded and it’s making it hard to talk about this. I need to take some time to calm down. I’m going to go for a walk, and I’ll be back in 20 minutes.” You don’t have to use these exact words, so here are the key points:
- Name that you’re feeling flooded, rather than blaming your partner.
- Explain that you want to be able to engage productively, and being flooded is getting in the way.
- Take responsibility for self-soothing and coming back into self-regulation. That way, your partner doesn’t feel like you’re dumping it on them.
- Tell them what you’re going to do in order to self-soothe.
- Commit to coming back once you’ve settled down. (That’s what helps keep it from feeling like you’re disengaging or abandoning them. If 20 minutes goes by and you still feel worked up, check in and let them know that you need a little more time.)
You might need to practice this in order to figure out what words feel authentic to you. And you might find it helpful to talk with your partner about it in advance so the two of you can refine your language. One person might need to be told “I love you” while another might want to hear “I’m committed to finishing this conversation.” Plan for success by talking with each other about the specific words that will work for you both.
Self-soothing is all about lowering the activation and allowing your system to come back into balance. For many people, it takes about 20 minutes for the body to process all of that adrenaline, which means that you’ll need that long before you can productively reengage. You might need more time than that, or less. But however long you need, you’ll do better when you can give yourself that time.
There are many different ways to self-soothe when you’re flooded. I find that focusing attention on something neutral or positive helps because it engages the brain and helps bring the ability to think clearly back online. Going for a walk and thinking about how much your partner pisses you off isn’t likely to work because you’re reinforcing the flooding. Instead, try walking around the block and count all of the red cars you see, or how many birds you see. Or look around the room and count the blue objects. Or find an object your really like looking at and think about why you like it. Drink some water. Take a shower or a bath. Allow yourself to take some space to lower your activation and give your body time to digest the adrenaline.
It can also help to slow your breathing down. Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and then follow along with this gif (which you can download here):
Reengaging With Your Partner
When it’s time to come back, start by thanking your partner for giving you some room. It can be really scary to see someone go into flooding (especially if it manifests as anger) and it can be scary to let them take a time out without rushing to fix things. While you’ve been taking a shower or looking at birds, they’ve been holding their emotions and trusting in your process. A little gratitude and recognition for that effort can be helpful. It’s also good to check with them and make sure that they’re ready to pick things back up because they might need a little more time.
When you start talking again, try to track your level of activation. The conversation will only be productive to the degree that you can both stay sufficiently self-regulated. So if you feel yourself starting to get worked up to the point where flooding might happen again, that’s the time to slow down. If you push yourself past your ability to self-regulate, you’ll go back into flooding, which makes things take much longer. This is a situation where you’ll get there faster when you take it slowly.
Going slowly also give you both an opportunity to practice your self-regulation skills, which means that you’ll be able to improve more easily. You might find it useful to work with a therapist or a coach, since they can help you identify your patterns and offer specific tools to address them. Partners can be a big support, but they’re sometimes too close to the situation to have as much clarity as you need.
That’s especially true if the way your flooding manifests causes them to feel flooded and vice versa. In those situations, you’re each escalating the other and headed for a spiral (or an explosion). It’s not impossible for the two of you to resolve it on your own, but some outside perspective and support can make it much less difficult.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Part of what makes emotional flooding a challenge is that it makes it difficult to think clearly and speak non-defensively at exactly the moment when you need to. Changing your patterns and responses won’t happen overnight, and it’s important to have realistic expectations about what you (and/or your partner) can do. Celebrate the small triumphs, rather than focusing on how they aren’t enough. And when things don’t go smoothly, use that as an opportunity to find a better approach next time. Beating yourself up for not “getting it right” will only make things more difficult.
Your habits and patterns around emotional flooding are probably deeply ingrained, perhaps for years. It’ll take some time to change them, but every little bit helps speed things along. And with some consistent effort, you’ll get to a place where you look back on where you were are you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve come.
As a somatic sex educator and relationship coach, I want to help you find new ways to create the relationships that support you and make you thrive. Get in touch with me to schedule a free Get Acquainted call. Let’s talk about what’s going on for you and how I can help you make sex easy.