What Is Emotional Flooding and How Can You Overcome It?

Even when our emotions can take us by surprise, we usually know why. Whether we’re dealing with a loss, or being cut off during our commute, the feeling we have can be intense. It’s completely normal to experience these natural ebbs and flows of emotions. However, some people experience unexpected surges of intense emotions sending the body into survival mode, a condition called emotional flooding.

What is emotional flooding?

Emotional flooding is when we experience an intense wave of emotions. These are often overwhelming, causing our body and brain to operate in 'survival mode'. It may be hard to manage these emotions, leading to overactivation of our sympathetic nervous system, which triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response. Emotional flooding can cause significant negative impacts on daily life, particularly our relationships.

Emotional flooding can happen anytime but is often seen between people: partners, parent and child, or professional relationships. Research study showed that emotional intelligence and conflict resolution strategies are critical in managing partner conflicts and reducing flooding.

Anyone can experience emotional flooding. However, some people may be more at risk, such as individuals with past traumas, genetic predisposition or generally have a difficult time managing their emotions. Mental health conditions that involve intense and changing emotions, like some personality disorders, may also be at higher risk for emotional flooding.

How it differs for children and adults

Not surprisingly, emotional flooding looks different in adults and children. Our brains aren’t fully developed until we are around the age of 25, meaning our emotional regulation skills may still be evolving.

Emotional flooding in children usually looks like a meltdown. Since they can’t yet regulate their emotions or identify the triggers, they get easily overwhelmed and often end up in tears or lashing out. This can be triggered by trauma they’ve experienced or a simple frustration like not getting a toy they wanted at the store. It’s up to parents to help teach their children how to manage their emotions and increase their emotional intelligence.

In adults, emotional flooding is usually caused by past traumas, mental health issues or can be triggered by different relationship dynamics. For example, having a heated argument with your partner may create intense feelings of overwhelm and lead to emotional flooding. While we have the ability to recognize emotions as adults, seeing triggers and knowing how to manage intense feelings can be challenging.

Symptoms of emotional flooding

The symptoms of emotional flooding vary from person to person. Despite this, there are several key emotional, mental, and physical signs you can watch out for.

These can look like:

  • Feeling out of control of your emotions
  • Unable to think clearly
  • Making irrational decisions
  • Negative self-talk
  • Having racing thoughts
  • Crying spells or being on the verge of tears
  • Increased heart rate
  • Feeling knots in your stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating and/or shaking

One of the most difficult things about these symptoms is that they can feed off of each other. Feeling knots in your stomach may trigger racing thoughts, which may lead to shortness of breath. Developing a set of tools to use during episodes of emotional flooding can be incredibly helpful. These tools support intense emotions and assist in returning to a calm, baseline state.

Key ways to manage emotional flooding

Understanding your triggers is one of the key ways to support emotional flooding. There are also some mental health techniques that are helpful in separating yourself from your emotions and breaking you out of the spiral you're experiencing

Breathing exercises

Breathing exercises are one of the most effective ways to calm your nervous system down when you’re experiencing a flooding of emotions. These work by slowing down the heart rate and getting you out of the survival mode.

An example if this is deep breathing. It's just one form of breathing exercise that is decrease heart rate and feelings of stress. Research shows that a deep breathing protocol involving various exercises alternating breaths and deep butterfly breathing, along with some body movements and imagery significantly improved self-reported mood and stress levels.

Practice positive self-talk

The way we talk to ourselves affects how we handle stressful situations. For example, feeling guilt or shame around doing something wrong at work and believing you are a 'bad' person may trigger an emotional flood. Taking time to practice positive self-talk regularly can help shift these beliefs, making you more resilient in challenging situations.

Practicing grounding techniques and mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your attention on what you’re feeling in the present moment. It can involve focusing on your breathing, guided imagery, and bringing attention to how your feet feel on the ground. It’s been known to help lower feelings of anxiety.

Feeling grounded is another benefit of mindfulness. These can help shift your attention away from the emotions you're experiencing to bring you to the present moment. One example is the 5-4-3-2-1 practice when you identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you can taste.

Expressing your feelings

Emotional flooding tends to work in a cyclical pattern, happening in a sort of repeat. Because of this, your body can hold onto stress if this cycle isn't finished or it's disrupted. Doing physical activity or getting out in nature can release stress and tension allowing your body to complete the cycle and for your emotions to rebalance.

Setting boundaries

Setting boundaries can be challenging, but it is an effective way to support flooding. Knowing what you will or will not tolerate is not only empowering, but it can help balance emotions. Boundaries may include breaking contact with toxic people, asking for help when you're feeling overwhelmed, setting expectations for communication and conflict.


Developing a set of self-care tools to help you feel good can also combat the emotional waves. These can be taking time for mindfulness in the morning, a rigorous exercise routine, taking a long bath, reading a good book, or getting out into nature.

Identifying the cause

Knowing what can trigger your emotional flooding is one of the most direct ways to identify it. It allows you to proactively avoid surges by recognizing the trigger ahead of time.

What triggers emotional flooding

Emotional flooding can show up in several different areas of life. Some of the most common triggers are arguments and conflicts in romantic relationships. When both partners are expressing opposite viewpoints, each can get triggered, causing a flood of emotions. This may lead to people saying things they don’t mean and feeling overwhelmed.

Parents and caregivers can also get overwhelmed and pressured by all the responsibilities. When dealing with an emotional flood, caregivers and parents may not be able to calm themselves to handle the situation properly, potentially yelling at their children or shutting down.

Emotional flooding can also happen while at work from work stress and the tension of dealing with professional relationships. Emotions can also run high when dealing with toxic work stress from a boss or managers who don’t respect your boundaries.

Even though anyone can experience emotional flooding, there are certain mental health conditions that put people at higher risk for emotional flooding.

Highly sensitive people (HSP) are very vulnerable to sensory input from others' emotions and environment. These characteristics put them at higher risk for emotional flooding.

People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have experienced traumatic events, that negatively affects the nervous system, making it more difficult to process emotions. During a triggering event this may create heightened states of emotion as well as emotional avoidance (like bottling up feelings), which can lead to emotional flooding.

Research shows that adults with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are at risk for struggling with emotional dysregulation. This is linked to other emotional challenges and may also lead to more serious ADHD symptoms and the risk of feeling "flooded with emotions flooding".

Clinical depression and low self-esteem leave people feeling more sensitive to negative emotions, low mood, rumination, and guilt. These all may contribute to emotional flooding due to more intense emotions.

Individuals with personality disorders may be at risk of experiencing flooding. Conditions like borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder often come with extreme mood changes and unpredictable emotions.

When to seek professional help?

If you’ve tried the methods above but still are struggling with floods of emotions, it may be time to talk to a professional. A therapist or counselor can help you understand your triggers, address underlying issues, and give you additional support and tools to deal with episodes of flooding.

Emotional flooding can be difficult to manage on your own and can be very disruptive to daily life and relationships. Mental health professionals are there to help you navigate these difficulties to get living your life to its fullest.

Understanding emotional flooding is key to supporting mental well-being. While it's a common experience that can affect anyone, people with mental health conditions may be at risk. Recognizing the signs of emotional flooding and having strategies to cope is essential to maintaining emotional balance. By exploring its causes, associated conditions, and management techniques, we set ourselves for better understanding of intense emotional waves. Remember, emotional health is a journey, and learning to manage emotional flooding is an important step toward emotional intelligence and well-being.


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