We’re not indestructible vessels, capable of sailing any storm. When waves reach our bough, crashing onto our decks, we take on water and if the storm continues, we sink. Flooded by emotion our biological systems panic, dragging psychological remedies down with them. This paralyzing state of mind is referred to as emotional flooding or Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA).
T. Franklin Murphy wrote “a raised voice, a shadow, an uncomfortable question, a critical remark, unexpected change, or a crazed man with a ninja sword move the body through physiological changes. Depending on the immediacy and severity of the information, the heart speeds, blood flows, and complex cognitive appraisal are suspended” (2014). Our emotions motivate behaviors and learning. We need the pushes, tugs, and flashes to focus attention on the important and threatening elements of our environment. The greater the arousal, the more it commandeers our biological systems, initiating protective and defensive behaviors.
The Fight-or-Flight Mode and Emotional Flooding
In a great article on emotional flooding, writer Brianne Hogan wrote, “while we can all attest to having emotional reactions when we are dealing with our loved ones, there’s a difference between getting a little upset and frustrated over who did the dishes last versus feeling so overwhelmed by our feelings that we instantly go into flight-or-fight mode and can’t even think let alone communicate straight” (2020).
We evolved this way. Emotional flooding serves a survival purpose. Physiological arousal directs flows of energy to primitive processes that protect against extreme threat. We can’t afford to debate reactions in emergency. Questions, evaluations, alternate solutions slow down processing when we just need to move (or run).
Healthy Relationship Behaviors Suffer when Emotionally Flooded
People flooded in physiological arousal operate with limited resources. They lose the ability to listen, receive additional information from the environment, and examine feedback from interpersonal interactions. The emotional flooding disconnects use of prosocial skills of humor and relationship repairs. We hobble into intense situations crippled by an over-reaction to perceived threats. Instead of wise, relationship building techniques, we hunker down, throwing nasty barbs at someone we love, and damaging the very bonds we wish to keep.
Therapist Gwendolyn Nelson Terry teaches that “when we are in the state of DPA we can’t give or receive affection which means any attempt by our partners to help us soothe or any attempt we make to soothe our partner is often overlooked and not helpful” (2019).
Diffuse physiological arousal (emotional flooding) is a magnificent occurrence when it saves us from formable threats. However, flooding can be destructive when our perceptions misalign with reality, treating ordinary stress as a threat to our survival. Fears of abandonment, anxiety over the unknown, and extraordinary fear of failure may conjure up emotions that send us into a panic rather than focus attention on necessary elements in the environment that must be managed to succeed.
”When caught in one of these riptides, you may have the physical sensation of something taking hold of your body. Your muscles clench, your temperature skyrockets, or your stomach turns. With a mind in overdrive, you are deaf to anything your partner says.”~Stephanie Manes, LCSW | The Gottman Institute
Emotional Flooding and Decision Impairment
Arousal only protects against immediate immanent threats. The more complex and prolonged the danger, the more we need better solutions from additional cognitions. Our instinctive primeval reaction may mislead. We need more resources to act correctly. The heightened arousal loses sight of future goals.
Daniel Goleman in his best selling book Emotional Intelligence wrote, “people who are flooded cannot hear without distortion or respond with clear-headedness; they find it hard to organize their thinking, and they fall back on primitive reactions. They just want things to stop, or want to run or, sometimes, to strike back. Flooding is a self-perpetuating emotional hijacking” (2006, Kindle Location 2,865). The impairment is biological. John M. Gottman Ph.D. explains, “when our heart rates become high we also start secreting adrenaline, and we can’t process information very well” (2011, Kindle location 435).
In a recent paper, the researchers wrote that flooding may be “a form of distress intolerance, and may be related to (but not overlapping with) experiential avoidance….” (Malik, Heyman, et al. 2020). A person’s propensity to flood influences their environments, creating harsh consequences. The person may react to the discomfort of flooding by avoiding opportunities likely to challenge their diminished capacity to tolerate stress. Their repeated meltdowns may destroy relationships, further enhancing fears and disrupting security.
Misleading Perception of Threats
One of the culprits of inopportune and maladaptive arousal is our emotion doesn’t match the threat. We flood not because of the danger, but because of our magnifying of the level of threat. Our emotions than react to the subjective interpretation rather than the actual event.
Our partner may say something cross. Upset from a long day, they react to an oversight. These interpersonal events are common and easily managed with minimal relationship skills. However, if we infuse the benign event with significance, the careless rebuff mushrooms (at least in our mind) into a threat of abandonment. Under the weight of ingrained fears, emotions flood through the open door and commandeer our minds. Simple relationship skills are abandoned for protective reactionary blasts.
Gottman articulates this maladaptive reaction, “there are no predators about to kill and eat them. Still, the alarm has gone off and there might as well be a tiger about to leap at their jugular.” We indulge in selfish reactionary protections when flooded. “when people are threatened, they operate in the ultimate stage of self-interest. Their interest becomes self-preservation” (2011, Kindle location 2253).
Biological and Learning Correlates to Propensity to Emotionally Flood
Biological and learning factors may also influence an individuals propensity to emotionally flood.
Our individualized response to sensory information is highly determined by biological foundations. Embedded in our DNA scrips form large swatches of our lives. New findings in epigenetics are discovering how environments impact gene expression. However, this doesn’t dismiss the underlying mechanics of the gene. We all possess a set of propensities before we even leave the womb. Many of these biological inherited traits are directly related to the valence and level of arousal we experience when interacting with the world.
We are social creatures. We watch and absorb, learning from social models. How parents, coaches, leaders, and popular figures in society react to experience impacts our learning modeling behaviors that we may emulate.
Hollywood often romanticizes emotionally flooded reactions, stamping approval and ill behavior. Social media sends robust messages aggrandizing selfish reactionary outbursts. We may internalize these messages, believing it is within our rights to throw tantrums to achieve momentary release of tension while leaving our futures in shambles.
Trauma can also lead to repeated experiences of flooding. Our bodies get stuck in protective patterns and under the slightest provocation emotions flood the system. Diana Fosha Ph.D. explains that the autonomic hyperarousal adopted from trauma create “a chaotic and terrifying flooding of affect that can threaten to overwhelm sanity and imperil psychological survival” (2009, Kindle location 2,755).
Flooding and Relationships
Research on emotional flooding has often been conducted in conjunction with relationships. Emotions are social in nature. Emotional regulation and expression is key for connecting and communication. Emotional flooding contributes to the dramatic end to many relationships. Intimacy with all its grand blessings invites strong emotions—joys and sorrows. We draw so much strength from our relationships that connections also foster vulnerabilities; and with vulnerabilities comes vigilant watchfulness, and heightened emotions.
The heightened sensitivity of one partner tends to infect the other partner. A simple comment may draw a negative response, and the negative response may heighten fear of rejection. The interactive reactions quickly cascade into a full blown emotional collapse. Flooded with emotion communication is halted and protective measures of attack or withdrawal creep in and destroy.
Gottman explains these faltering communication states in his book on trust, he wrote, “something like this sense of being overwhelmed and unsafe happens to people in the face of strong negative emotion in reciprocally nasty-nasty escalating exchanges when they become an absorbing state. They are in a psychological state of insecurity. They are feeling flooded and there is no escape” (2011, Kindle location 2,256).
Repeated Difficult Interactions Leads to Less Stress Needed for Emotional Flooding
Heightened emotional states repeated often, under varying circumstances, tend to create a pattern of interaction that invites emotional flooding with little provocation. Perhaps, a function of our predictive brain, drawing on the past nasty-nasty melt downs that led emotional scars and pain.
Gottman provides four elements present in emotional flooding when pertaining to relationships:
- a feeling of overwhelm when exposed to one’s partner’s negative emotions and one’s own emotions as the partner brings up issues
- an inability to avoid becoming defensive
- an inability to avoid repeating oneself
- an unquenchable impulse to escape
The impulsive protections for immediate escape lead to behaviors that fail to resolve complex and long-term relationship problems.
Flooded responses promote escape or withdrawal reactions. We attack in unexpected and disorganized ways as our system slips into dysfunctional chaos. We can’t maintain organized, goal oriented behaviors in response to a partners negative affect (Malik, 2020).
Gottman adds, “flooding impairs our access to important social processes like our sense of humor, creativity, creative problem-solving, empathy, and nondefensive listening” (2011).
The behaviors motivated during emotional flooding damage rather than build. Murphy explains, “painful attacks damage bonds. Repeatedly inflicting pain over long relationships, leaves deep scars, and builds barriers to trust and plants seeds of hope of an eventual escape for someone better. If our goal is intimacy, painful attacks have no place. They hurt, they separate, and they destroy” (2015).
Burnout and Emotional Flooding
Murphy wrote, “ego depletion theorizes that willpower is a limited resource. Cognitive demands draw from the well, eventually depleting energy. In a depleted state, we are weakened, lacking strength to resist temptations or pursue difficult goals” (2020).
Most of us have experienced the emotional impact of a depleted ego, a stressful day at work drains resources, and we quickly flood with emotion, attacking a partner or child for a small perceived wrong. Ordinarily we could regulate the emotion and respond with effectiveness.
Penberthy and associates found in their research on physician burnout a strong link between a physicians level of distress and their likelihood to display unprofessional behaviors (2018). As stress accumulates, regulation of emotion deteriorates, and flooding is more likely to occur, leading to maladaptive behaviors.
Preventing Emotional Flooding From Wrecking Your Relationships (and Life)
We are not helpless in the face of our emotions. There are steps we can take to lessen the damaging impact of emotions.
Avoiding Situations Likely to Lead to Flooding
Awareness of our emotional patterns provides an abundance of information to regulate our emotions. We can’t avoid every stressful situation, nor should we. Certainly, stress is an inherent part of growth. However, we can identify events that repeatedly led to emotional flooding and make preparation for avoiding the collapse into destructive emotions. However, we can limit exposure and have preplanned escape routes that we employ before too steeped in emotion to think creatively.
Having a tool box of effective tools that soothe emotions is essential. When warning signs break the horizon, we reach in grab a proven tool, and prevent the blow up. Some of these tools may include:
- Mindful breathing
- Compassion focused meditation
- Communication Skills
- Nondefensive listening
Penberthy and associates found that when physicians engaged in courses designed to teach “skills regarding effective coping and interpersonal communication skills…” They found that these measures led to increased quality of life and decreases in scores of burnout and flooding (2018).
Partner Assisted Regulating
Emotional flooding is a partner problem. When a couple works together, they can rely on each others resources to down regulate extreme arousal. This is known in psychology as dyadic emotional regulation. Partners assist each other through:
- allowing disengagement when emotions begin to overwhelm
- non-defensive listening
- clear, non-judgmental, non-blaming communication
- honoring relationship repair attempts (humor, topic changing, validation)
A Few Final Words on Emotional Flooding
We are emotional beings. Accordingly, we will react to life. Sometimes events will overwhelm our resources and we will flood with emotion. However, by building avenues of escape, surrounding ourselves with others that can assist down regulate emotion in those critical moments, we can survive the occasional set backs and thrive.
Fosha, Dianna (2009). The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition
Goleman, Daniel (2006). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam; Revised edition
Gottman, John M. (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition.
Hogan, Brianne (2020). What Is ‘Emotional Flooding’ & How Can You Make Sure It Isn’t Wrecking Your Relationships? She Knows. Published 5-29-2020. Accessed 3-7-2022.
Malik, J., Heyman, R., & Smith Slep, A. (2020). Emotional Flooding in Response to Negative Affect in Couple Conflicts: Individual Differences and Correlates. Journal of Family Psychology, 34(2), 145-154.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2014) Emotional Overload. Psychology Fanatic. Published 8-2014. Accessed 3-7-2022.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2020) Ego Depletion Theory. Psychology Fanatic. Published 12-31-2020. Accessed 3-8-2022.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2015) Intent to Hurt. Psychology Fanatic. Published 8-2015. Accessed 3-8-2022.
Penberthy, J., Chhabra, D., Ducar, D., Avitabile, N., Lynch, M., Khanna, S., Xu, Y., Ait-Daoud, N., & Schorling, J. (2018). Impact of Coping and Communication Skills Program on Physician Burnout, Quality of Life, and Emotional Flooding. Safety and Health at Work, 9(4), 381-387.
Terry, Gwendolyn Nelson (2019). How to Handle it When You or Your Partner Shuts Down During a Fight. Published 8-26-2019. Accessed 3-7-2022.