Imagine yourself as a seasoned meteorologist, only you are tracking emotions instead of weather patterns. You employ tools to stay grounded like meditating for ten minutes, taking calming walks in nature, and doodling in your favorite coloring book. You have a very good theoretical view of how to handle life’s difficult situations. You feel prepared to take on anything. You can weather a storm when it’s planned for. Unfortunately, our emotions are just like the weather, volatile and often unpredictable.
Fast forward to a time when you are experiencing a cluster fuck of physiological and stress-related deficiencies: your PH levels are off, you are sleep deprived, you feel undervalued at work, and you got an unexpected parking ticket. At this point, you are teetering between “I have my shit together” and “I am about to lose my shit.”
One of two things can happen when you are in a teetering state: you deescalate and reground yourself or something hits you when you are most vulnerable. In a state of vulnerability, you become emotionally responsive to any stimulus that sets off a negative thought or feeling. This could be seeing, hearing, feeling, or doing something that makes you emotionally uncomfortable. In this moment, regardless of the logical severity of the trigger, you are uprooted and flooded with boundless emotion. You lose your grasp on reality and start flooding.
I used to use the word triggered to explain this onslaught of emotion, this gigantic burden of emotional weight that hits us when we are reminded of heavy times from our lives’ past. The Gottman Institute has a better phrase and definition. Emotional flooding better explains why we become overwhelmed by this onset of emotion. It is also so illustrative of what is happening–a flash flood of emotion, unplanned and unpredictable.
According to Psychologist John Gottman, when emotionally flooding, you reach the point when your thinking brain is shut out of the situation. This emotional hijacking is your nervous system in overdrive. Something happens, it could be almost anything emotionally, that sets off your internal threat-detection system. This is your sympathetic nervous system in action, preparing you for battle or flight. In this state, you lose some of your capacity for rational thought. Science describes this is as a decrease of activity in your pre-frontal cortex, the center of higher cognition.
In essence, you lose your shit, get ungrounded, and cannot respond from a good place.
In these situations, it’s best to identify what is going on and step away until you can deescalate. Doing nothing, remaining silent, and walking away is okay.
Emotionally flooding begins with somatic symptoms, meaning you can feel them in your body first. This is a great way to identify early. You might feel a rush of adrenaline, or heat moving through your body. When you get nervous, angry, anxious, or experience any other negative emotion, what goes on in your body? Take note of these somatic symptoms and practice identifying them during times of decreased sensitivity.
If you are in a conflict situation and need to remove yourself from it, clearly articulate your sense of feeling overwhelmed and that you need to remove yourself. It helps to have conversations with your partner in advance of this situation so you both know what to expect. I once used a code language for my level of flooding with a partner. Code blue meant I was on the verge of flooding and code red meant that I needed to escape the conflict. With advance prep, the information should not be taken personally.
Finally, self-soothing is about lowering the activation of your sympathetic nervous system and allowing your system to come back into balance. For most people, it takes about 20 minutes for the body to process all of that adrenaline, so use that as your benchmark before you reengage. You may take longer and that is perfectly okay.
Emotional flooding is normal. We all deal with it. We are all at different levels of awareness when it comes to what floods us. The most important thing is to work to identify the things that set you off and to not feel pressured to engage in situations until you allow yourself to sooth. Nothing good will come from a brain that is six feet under water.
First, come up for air…