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Emotional Flooding: What It Is and How To Manage It

by | Aug 20, 2022

Do you get overwhelmed during arguments? 

Are you stuck in an exhausting cycle of conflict with your partner, but maybe don’t know why? 

Does something take over inside of you when you get angry?

Do you feel a sudden whoosh of negative emotions or body sensations in a heightened situation or when you sense danger?

Flooding may be to blame. 

What is Emotional Flooding?

Flooding is a sensation of feeling overwhelmed during conflict, making it impossible to have a productive conversation.  

Love is stored in the parts of your brain that you no longer have when you’re flooded. 

When you’re flooded, you have no interest in maintaining the vulnerability of intimacy.  Your brain only wants protection.

Your brain scans for safety four times per second. As long as it senses safety, it stays in its wise adult self, using the whole brain and all of its resources. However, when it senses danger, we become flooded and our survival instincts take over.  

Men typically flood faster than women.  However, you wouldn’t know it because they’re less expressive.  Some couples therapists who use the Gottman Method will actually put heart rate monitors on couples to determine if/when one of them floods in session.  It can be hard to tell just by observing them. 

Signs of Emotional Flooding:

  • Your voice raises.  Your tone may change.
  • You interrupt or talk over your partner, often saying things you don’t really mean.
  • You feel out of breath.  Your heart races and you may feel like you are having a panic attack.  You may feel hot or sweat.
  • You shut down mentally or find a safe place to retreat to.
  • You stop at nothing until the situation is remedied and you feel better. 

The Six F’s:

Your brain senses a perceived threat.  It floods and seeks protection.  Let’s use running into a tiger as an example.  We see that tiger and our brain chooses to do one of these 6 things. 

  • Fight 

Fight the tiger.  Use your voice, your fists, or whatever means necessary to protect yourself from the tiger.  In the end, you want to stand victoriously.  

  • Flight

Run from the tiger.  A runner can also flee by lying, omitting, or evading. Not just by running away.

  • Fix   

Fix the tiger.  Fixers are fueled by an anxiety-driven need to make the problem go away as quickly as possible. 

  • Freak Out

Freak out about the tiger.  Those who freak out when flooded need to have a “breakdown” before they can begin to process what is happening/happened.  They are often external processors or emotional individuals who need to “get it out” before they can use their rational adult brain to solve the problem. 

  • Fawn 

Fawn over the tiger.  Give compliments, give in, appease, and play nice until the threat is gone, even if you don’t actually mean it.  It can also be calming the other person down in an attempt to feel more safe. 

  • Freeze 

Freeze around the tiger so that you feel invisible from the threat.  Thinking you’ll stay safe if you say nothing and become immobile.  Your heart rate can actually drop rather than rise.  You may notice muscle tension as well. 

What To Do When You Experience Emotional Flooding

Realize that your mind and body are flooded.  This takes practice at recognizing its cues.  Do not ignore them. 

Decide in the moment which path you’re going to take: react or respond.  There is a big difference between the two.  Urgency is your enemy and breath is your friend.  Take the time to choose wisely and maturely. 

Ask for a break.  Flooding takes 30 minutes at least for your body to metabolize the cortisol that is created during flooding.  This is biological and not something that’s wrong with you.  Your brain literally needs a break! 

During the break, don’t think about the situation until you take care of yourself. It’s important to take care of yourself first, because you’ll start ruminating and won’t be able to come down from flooding if you don’t give your brain a break and self-soothe your body and mind.  Remind yourself that you are ok and that safety is possible.  Realize that thinking errors like overgeneralizing or catastrophizing aren’t helpful, not everyone or every situation is bad.

You’ll know when you come down from flooding when it feels like you’ve had a brain transplant and you literally feel like a new person.  That’s because your prefrontal cortex has come back on and your whole brain is working again.

Process what happened.  Be aware of your part in it. 

Reconnect with the person when you feel safe to do so.  Circle back, communicate and repair the situation.  Take turns listening and speaking.  Learn how it can be handled better next time.  The goal is not to win but to understand.  Reconnect and get back to harmony. 

About Kristi | View Profile
Kristi Schwegman is a psychotherapist specializing in helping couples develop healthy relationships, whether dating, engaged, or married. She also draws from her Christian-based approach to lead individuals in becoming aware of the limiting beliefs that can get them stuck.
We offer in-person and virtual services - contact us today to learn more!

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