What Is Emotional Flooding and What Should I Do the Next Time It Happens?

emotional flooding

Blowing your stack. Losing your cool. Hitting the roof. Going full-on Laura Dern in Enlightened. Having an explosive emotional reaction when we are under stress or overwhelmed is a terrible—yet very common—experience. Frustrated parents, overextended spouses, pressure-cooked professionals and highly sensitive people are all particularly vulnerable to spinning out of control in this way. And this particular brand of blind rage has a name: It’s called emotional flooding. And it’s a slippery slope. According to experts, the more stress we have in our lives, the easier and faster we tend to lose our sh#@.

So What is Emotional Flooding?

Flooding is defined by therapist Stephanie Manes as follows:

“The difference between flooding and more manageable experiences of our emotions is one of magnitude. You reach the point when your thinking brain—the part that can take in gray areas, consider other sides, stay aware of the real state of affairs—is shut out.”

Here are three things to understand about emotional flooding, so you can bail yourself out the next time a wave hits:

1. Our bodies physiologically change

It’s important to know that flooding is a physiological response to an emotional trigger. When we go into fight-or-flight mode during a heated argument, our nervous system gets hijacked, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol course through our bodies, and there is decreased activity in our prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain that controls executive functioning and more sophisticated cognition. We literally become disoriented, lose the ability to see multiple perspectives and get stuck on whatever story we’re telling ourselves (aka I’m right and you are the literal worst). Fascinatingly, our memories also become distorted, which explains why we momentarily forget we ever loved the target of our fury in the first place.

2. Your body needs 20 minutes to reset

According to relationship researcher John Gottman, the average person needs 20 minutes for their body to reset after they become flooded. You may think you’re calm a few minutes after a blow-up, but spoiler altert (and physiologically speaking), you’re not. With this number in mind, researchers at Gottman’s institute recommend taking a 20-minute break if you sense an argument starting to escalate. But while you’re off cooling down, “refrain from venting to others, or even to yourself,” writes couples therapist Kerry Lusignan. “Instead, channel your turmoil into something unrelated. Go for a walk, fold the laundry, weed the garden, or do anything that takes your mind away from the conflict.” May we suggest rage cleaning?

3. Take note of how you're reacting and feeling

The proven way to stop yourself from flooding is—you guessed it—buzzword of the century: mindfulness. But how do you become mindful at the exact moment you’re starting to feel murder-y? Get curious about what you are experiencing, suggests Diane Musho Hamilton, an expert on conflict resolution, in an article for the Harvard Business Review. “We may notice a change in our tone of voice, gripping sensations in the belly, or a sudden desire to withdraw. Each of us has particular bodily and behavioral cues that alert us to the reality that we feel threatened, and are therefore running on automatic pilot.”

If we simply focus on these feelings without trying to control or change them, we can override our fight-or-flight instincts, gain some distance from our swirling thoughts, and become more present. This takes lots of practice. But it’s a muscle worth strengthening. After all, if we can learn to stop the flooding, we’ll have a lot less mess to mop up later.

What Is ‘Stay-at-Home-Mom Depression’ and How Can You Fight It?