What is Emotional Flooding? Are You Doing It?

Last week, I talked about the intensity of emotion to establish a framework of when feelings can be helpful and unhelpful.

This week I want to talk more about the unhelpful part of intense emotions: flooding.

It’s true that being with your feelings and developing the skills to tolerate them is essential. Absolutely. And, there is such a thing as over-doing it. Yes. Too much of a good thing actually is too much.

Being overwhelmed with your feelings (a 6 in intensity or above) is called flooding.

In the mental health world, we mostly use the word “flooding” when we are talking about dealing with trauma. But, in fact, it applies in general.

Emotional flooding usually happens in a few different instances:

  1. When you are more prone to experience intense emotion in general (i.e. a highly sensitive person or someone who is very in touch with their emotions)
  2. When you are NOT prone to be in touch with your emotions very much and then a huge backlog of emotion comes through (normally this is an eruption of anger)
  3. When something really intense has happened for you (a loss, a traumatic event or they are triggered)
    Emotional flooding is not good for anyone.

This is the opposite end of the spectrum from being numb. But it happens. It’s kind of hard to miss when it is happening because your emotions pretty much become the center of your world. It is hard to focus on anything else.

While being with your emotions is very important, it is only necessary to be with them long enough for two things to happen:

  1. The emotion can deliver its message to you
  2. For your body to metabolize the emotion (that means the emotion gets to process through your body until it is complete)

Let’s talk about this in terms of flooding.

  • For an emotion to deliver its message to you, you have to be capable of insight.

I know that might sound rude. You might think “I’m not a child, I have insight”. But, really, when you are flooded with emotion, you don’t have insight. Even the Dali Lama doesn’t at that time. That’s because your ability for insight is in the Prefrontal Cortex. When you are flooded, the Limbic System is activated, which is more responsible for emotions and survival. So, you have to be able to back away from the emotion a little to get the message that wants to be delivered.

  • Even if you logically understand, your body still may need time to metabolize the emotion.

The cells of your body do not have logic, they just respond to the emotion and chemicals going through the body. If you can give your body a break from emotional flooding, it will be able to metabolize the emotion in chunks, not be overwhelmed. When your body is repeatedly overwhelmed, it is going to want to go into protection mode. That is where you are going to find yourself dealing with resistance more often. Resistance is suffering. Let’s try to do less suffering. Emotions are hard enough!

So, the idea is that you need skills to back away from the emotion if you are being flooded or (even better) if you are approaching that state.

That means you need distraction! Fortunately or unfortunately, we live in a society where there are distraction tools available in abundance.

I would love to tell you to breathe, meditate or read a book to distract yourself from flooding emotion. And, if you can do that, you are functioning on a high level, my friend. Kudos to you!

But, most of the time, if you are at a 6 or above on a scale of 1 to 10 of emotional intensity, you don’t feel like doing any of those things.

Probably exercise, getting focused on someone else, getting outside, watching funny YouTube videos or venting to a friend (no advice needed!) are going to be a better bet.

You need to find something that is emotionally consuming or literally shift the parts of the brain that are being accessed.

If you move your body, that will happen. If you get involved in something outside yourself that is interesting to you, that will happen.

If you find yourself getting flooded sometimes, do yourself a favor: make a list of things that you can do when you are flooded. That way, all you have to do is remember to look in your phone at the list. Even that is a challenge: just remembering that you have a list.

Leave a comment. Tell me what is on your list!

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