Understanding Emotional Flooding

Oh, the joys. I’ve been wanting to write this for ages, but it’s large and complex. I haven’t entirely done it justice here and I’ve touched on some areas that I’ve covered in other posts in more detail so I’ve linked instead of repeating myself. A lot of us with troubles with flooding get diagnosed with things like Borderline Personality Disorder, and although having a word for it can help, it can also leave us feeling very powerless and different from other people, which in some ways can hurt a lot worse. I don’t think we are either powerless or even particularly different. I think we are experiencing powerful things that our culture isn’t good at handling, and often convinces us to respond to in the worst possible ways.

What do I mean by emotional flooding? That place in which you are drowning. Emotions are so intense, so deeply felt, and so long lasting that you feel like your very identity is dissolving in them. You can’t clearly remembering not feeling this way and you start to lose hope you will ever feel differently again. We have a term for this when the feelings are really good ones – mania. But for the black depths of emotional pain or the anguished hypersensitivity of the chronically triggered, we don’t have a lot of words. Which doesn’t help! Decompensation is one way of putting it, but it’s not pretty and describes the effect of it, not how it feels on the inside.

I call it flooding. It’s the opposite to numb. It’s breaching containment. It’s not just taking the lids off boxes full of strong feelings and painful things you don’t like to think about, it’s falling in and having them snap shut on you so you can’t get out again.

Flooded can be an enduring state or a temporary crisis. I’m really familiar with it because I’ve spent a lot of my life flooded. It’s the state of being without ‘skin’ described by people trying to recover from trauma. It’s the ‘highly sensitive person’ label used by those who flood easily but don’t usually identify trauma. It can be hell. Exhausting, overwhelming all your resources to cope, and rapidly getting you to the point where you hate yourself and your life. It often leads to a state of frantic agitation which can be dangerous. People feeling frantic distress may resort to self help measures that seem crazy to those around them, and often to themselves once the crisis has passed.

I can only really describe flooding from my own perspective and much of this may be fairly unique to me, but I’m hoping there’ll be points of recognition and useful ideas for others too.

I flood quickly under certain circumstances. The first is when I’m chronically triggered. That might be a particularly bad week where a lot of big triggers happened to line up, or it might be that I’m particularly vulnerable at the moment and triggers I could otherwise handle are setting me off. One big trigger can cue a level of sensitivity and vulnerability that make me exquisitely attuned to all other triggers around me – I lack psychological ‘skin’ and can’t buffer the world anymore. Everything gets ‘under my skin’, everything feels personal, I can’t shrug anything off, and the littlest things feel like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’ve touched on these issues before, you can read a little more about them and my coping strategies:

The opposite process can also flood me, not triggers from outside but the result of internal processes. When you’ve come through anything that causes big feelings and intense thoughts and questions, most of us learn that to get out of bed in the morning we have to contain them. We put them in a mental box (or the cellar, or walk away from the big pit, or however our mental landscape works) and go focus on the rest of our day. This is a really useful skill. However it has a couple of risks. One is that triggers can set off a really huge reaction if they breach this containment. That’s why I can go from completely fine to a panic attack or overwhelmed with tears about baby stuff at the moment. My miscarriage is fresh and I have a lot of big stuff in boxes that can flood out and overwhelm me. The second risk is that, once we’ve boxed up the big stuff, we can find that walking back towards it voluntarily takes a bit more courage than we can coax up. Worse, our culture of ‘move on and get over it’ and our warped ‘recovery oriented’ mental health supports – when they think recovery means not feeling big stuff, can punish us for opening those boxes and warp our mindset to a point where we think that being in pain is sickness, failure, or us doing something wrong.

At that point we can shift our focus from containment – a highly necessary skill! to suppression. Where containment boxes stuff up so we can focus and be safe and do day to day things until we have a safe and appropriate time to feel and think and open the box back up, suppression coats the box in concrete and drops it in a lake. We box things up with no intention of ever going back for them. When they rattle and howl and start keeping us awake at night, we concrete the lake too. The trouble with this is that this stuff has buoyancy. The deeper we push it down, the harder it pushes back up.It also contains key aspects of our self. Little bits of us gets boxed up too. The reason the stuff wants to come back up is because we need it. Like iron filings trying to reach a magnet, it tries to come home. But we have split off from it and don’t recognise it as ourselves anymore. It’s like your lost cat turning up on the doorstep in a storm, wet, covered in mud, howling like mad. We freak out and slam the door and shut the windows while it cries, growls, and starts to attack the door.

Suppressed material isn’t trying to torture you, it’s trying to finish a key part of a process that you started – reconciliation. When we never make space for it, it randomly ruptures through a thousand feet of concrete and bursts all over our life with the intensity – and sometimes the unseeing rage – of an abandoned child. When we finally get it back ‘under control’ we feel vindicated that of course this is the right way to deal with it, because it is completely irrational, intense, dangerous, and unmanageable. It is flooded. But the truth is, this is the outworking of our process.

In suppression, we often turn against ourselves with shame, rage, fear of this feeling of being out of control, and often harsh self punishment. This is what does the harm, not the flooding, but our misunderstanding of it and response to it. Intense feelings and confusing questions are a normal part of life. They are frequently but not always triggered by experiences of change, loss, or trauma – not always our own. They are not mental illness or weakness or brokenness. They are our responsibility to figure out how and when to deal with them. Being flooded is not an excuse for flooding or abusing those around us. But it’s not a bad thing, not something to be ashamed of. It’s just human. We need food and air. And sometimes we need to feel very big feelings and ask very hard questions. There’s nothing wrong with us.

Shifting from suppression and self loathing (I hate myself) back to containment is possible. When suppression has been used a lot, initially the mind fights all forms of containment. Even putting aside little feelings can become impossible because you have broken trust – your mind no longer has faith that you will come back for anything you manage to compartmentalise. In an effort of elf preservation, it tries to stop you adding anything at all to the massive, growing collection of suppressed material you already have trying to break back through into awareness. Basically it doesn’t want you to feed the volcano any more. As you start learning how to safely let out small amounts of contained stuff, without blowing up the whole volcano every time (it’s not always possible), your mind shifts gears. It gets that you’re back on board and starts working with you to contain things. You have to coax and prove that you’re trustworthy, but it can turn around surprisingly quickly. This can simply start by inviting your mind to help you put aside your reactions to a trigger until you can get home, and then promising you will make a cuppa and sit in the back yard and let the feelings and thoughts come up – or however it is you prefer to feel big things.

For those of us with multiplicity, parts can be flooded, that can be their role. We often hate the part instead of hating and dismantling the role. In fact, whole groups of parts can be flooded. While they can feel like the worst thing imaginable, and impossible to let out or connect with, they are probably what stands between you and a lot of big stuff. They flood so you can feel sane and think straight. For me, I have taken on the idea that my job isn’t to reject them but to start to figure out how to look after them. If my most likely to self harm part comes near the surface I push her away until we’re home safe, and the she can sit in the bath or write in the journal or paints inks on our skin as she needs. (Wrist poems)

Another common trigger for being flooded is approaches that treat the flooding itself is useful. Ideas around catharsis, ‘letting it all out’, the need for big ’emotional releases’, and some approaches to anxiety use flooding  because on the other side of flooding is some outcome they want. A common example is people who have a perfectionist approach to therapy or self improvement and try to ‘process’ all their feelings or triggers all the time. I explore this more in

Flooding can activate attachment and makes us bond to others nearby. This can be a very valuable experience of being safely supported and connected with when we are overwhelmed. It can also be a form of dangerous trauma bonding in which attachment figures are sometimes experienced as safe and sometimes so frightening or intrusive that we flood – and in response to that flood they shift back to being caring so we bond. Some parenting approaches teach parents to deliberately induce flooding in children using methods such as restraints, because the resulting bonding is thought to be helpful – however, most therapists argue that bonds created under such duress are problematic and that the experience of being so intruded upon and overwhelmed that you are pushed into flooding does long term harm to a child’s perceptions of safety and autonomy that the trauma bonding merely conceals for a time. When this occurs without good intentions on the part of the adult the same process may be described as ‘child grooming’.

Some approaches to phobias also deliberately flood people ‘Flooding’ is in fact another name for ‘exposure therapy‘ where someone is deliberately overwhelmed with triggers to try to break the link between the trigger and the flooded state. Forced to confront what they would far rather avoid, for some it may reprogram that link so that trigger no longer evokes panic. It can be a powerful way to reality check a broken internal alarm system – see, you were so scared, but nothing bad actually happened. For others they may simply snap from being flooded into being dissociatively numb. The way exposure therapy is timed – some therapists take patients beyond the point of hysteria, while others move extremely slowly and practice relaxation and calming skills through the process, and the way it is handled – if the patients wants it or is being forced into it, possibly impact which outcome occurs – a genuine changing of the trigger or simply a dissociative break.

We ourselves can trigger these same dynamics with rapid changes of approach to our own triggers and vulnerabilities – going from extreme avoidance to extreme confrontation of triggers is common for those recovering from trauma. It often sets off cycles of being flooded and numb. We also feel deeply frustrated that ‘no matter what we do’ we still feel out of control and overwhelmed.

We can cycle between numb, ‘normal’ and flooded. This makes us feel chaotic and crazy! We can also get stuck in a flooded or numb space. For those with multiplicity, this kind of cascade switching can be a system desperately attempting to self regulate by giving each kind of part some time out. (Multiplicity – rapid switching) The problem is that you don’t get to choose when it happens and feel horribly out of control. You also probably use all the times that you’re numb or feeling okay as ‘proof’ that you’re not ‘really’ needing extra care or having big feelings, you’re just kind of faking or being weak and need to try harder – ie need to suppress more. Self care becomes suspicious self indulgence in your mind, especially if it acts as a trigger and the mind assumes that self care means its an appropriate time to let out some big feelings. It doesn’t work, we think to ourselves. It just makes me weaker and sicker! Being mean to myself is much better, it makes me stronger.

Other people being kind to us or praising us can have the same effect – sudden flooding can be cued simply by feeling slightly emotionally safe. This can make you try to self regulate by maintaining a chronic feeling of being unsafe. Over time you exhaust as well as emotionally starve and your containment starts to fail. Flooding becomes a regular part of your life and you are at constant war with your mind to keep it at bay, using what has always worked in the past – punishment, self hate, chronic anxiety, and staying away from people who treat you well. Traumatic replay of horrible events can easily be part of this dynamic too. These approaches make complete sense but they take you nowhere good in the longer run! Bits of them here and there aren’t the end of the world on bad days, but if this is how you always approach flooding you are in for a rough time.

For me, being pushed for intimacy instead of invited into intimacy can also trigger flooding. Some situations (eg therapy with someone I don’t trust yet, or a relationship where connection is being demanded) will inevitably flood me. If we are being asked for things that are currently in our mental boxes, being contained – whether that is ‘be more vulnerable with me’ or ‘I need you to show me how you feel’, my mind will open all the boxes  if that is the only way to be obedient or to have a connection. That isn’t the end of the world unless I or the other person don’t cope with the flooding or I get stuck in it. I’ve had this happen a couple of times and ruin friendships. These days I’m a lot more careful of this dynamic. People who have empathy for your vulnerability will usually cue it just by being attentive. Those who demand it are often those who are least equipped to cope with it.

Good trauma therapists are familiar with these dynamics and don’t panic if someone floods, but they also don’t try to open all the boxes at once. I recall a great example given by Barbara Rothschild where she uses the metaphor of carefully opening a shaken bottle of fizzy drink bit at a time, so you don’t get yourself covered in drink. Here’s a talk by her about this idea with a couple of easy to understand examples like that one:

It takes some practice to learn containment again and work with your mind when you’ve been using suppression and feeling intense fear or shame about your flooding. It’s especially challenging when your social network doesn’t get these ideas and supports the suppression-and-shame approach without realising what that’s costing you. A lot of the ideas around phase-oriented trauma therapy is giving people time and support to really learn, experience, and trust this different approach before opening the really frightening boxes. Of course, you don’t need a therapist to change how you think about and respond to flooding, and many therapists will actually make this process worse. I know of one locally who would insist that any client who wept must leave the room and stand outdoor the closed door. They were not permitted back until they ‘had themselves under control’. Bad therapy frequently confuses obedience and suppression with ‘recovery’ and would make this process of turning towards yourself, tuning in to yourself, and working with instead of against how your mind is trying to work, much more difficult.

It can be done. You can normalise flooding and have compassion for yourself in this state without just being overwhelmed by it or fighting it. You can learn how to open and close boxes again – not perfectly, not always exactly the way you would like, but enough to be both human and able to function. You can find value in the intense states and learn with experience that you do pass through them. It’s not fair that some of us have a much rougher road and a lot less skin and we build up huge amounts of intense stuff to deal with. But it’s also part of a more profound experience of life. Intensity isn’t just about mania or despair or depersonalisation. For myself at least, there are also experiences of deep connection, spirituality, the profound, the sublime. I envy the undisturbed a lot less when I realise how deeply connected to my own heart I am, the passion with which I have lived my life. It is precious to me that I can feel, even that I can be stripped of name and self, that I can find myself at 3am naked on the cliffs before the void in my own soul, in a kind of utter freedom. That I can sink so deeply into love, contentment, peace. I have lived deeply, and I would not have it any other way. I have suffered, but my heart has also been made larger. The size of the cup that brings pain and bitterness to my lips is the size of the cup that brings joy. Even in pain there is something of value, something human. To be deeply moved, to know passion, to know life. To know and recognise and be able to sit with flooding in others without being swept away. It takes courage to live in hard times, to live with an open heart. It can be a thing of great beauty.

22 thoughts on “Understanding Emotional Flooding

  1. thank you so much for this article on EF. I have never had the words before to describe what goes on under the surface of my life. Now I see that others have felt and described what I have known for years.
    Bless you!!

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  2. This really resonates with me. I’ve felt this way my whole life and I knew that but could never properly explain it. Unfortunately, I came across this a little too late. Last year, I got to this point: “It often leads to a state of frantic agitation which can be dangerous. People feeling frantic distress may resort to self help measures that seem crazy to those around them, and often to themselves once the crisis has passed.” and put myself into a horrible position and basically ruined my academic life. With my own hands. Nobody really understood and I am being punished for what I did way too harshly. Does anyone have any advice on how to deal with this? Because after this, the emotional flooding has intensified with even longer periods of numbness.

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    • I am so sorry to hear that. 😦 how terribly painful. If you can find a safe place to unpack and debrief the experience that may help. For me i find there’s layers of things like shame, fear, grief and failure that bind me when things like this happen. Being able to explore and express them can help me process it. I also find it useful to spend time a long way away from the part of my life that crashed and burned for awhile. It can feel like the whole world. But there’s so much more to life that can be nurturing your spirit while it heals. I hope they are helpful ideas. Best wishes.

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  3. Exceptional self awareness. I have a long road ahead of me with similar work, although perhaps with less intensity and duration. Flooding is definitely an issue. Suppression is definitely an issue. Now I need to figure out how to move towards containment. I have a great therapist I am working with but carefully time my appointments with a lot of work on myself in between. I have a marriage partner that needs to do similar intense work due to childhood issues, but it terrified of approaching it. I keep finding great articles like this online. I don’t know what is underneath at the bottom that I am going to find that is so overwhelming, but I will be glad when I have reconciled with my suppressed self. Thank you for these thoughts. Lots of great content. Here is to working with our minds and coming home to ourselves.

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    • That sounds very similar to my therapeutic process, lots of reflection time between sessions and keeping the focus on my own stuff as much as possible instead of trying to fix a partner. For me, the process of functioning in the everyday world means I must suppress myself to some extent. So the process of reconciling with my suppressed self is an ongoing unfolding one, the putting on and taking off of roles. What is suppressed can be extremely painful – that which is unbearable and unthinkable, but there’s often also jewels we lose along the way, part of what it is to feel truly alive. I wish you the best on your journey. I’ll drink to coming home to ourselves x

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  4. Sarah, I just found this article … thank you for articulating the experience of flooding, the misunderstanding in relation to treatment and your belief in self-management. I couldn’t agree more with a lot of what you have written … and appreciate that you did. I’m curious that you didn’t use the term “Boundaries” … I know it can have some negative interpretations … is that why?
    Cheers, Lee in Halifax, Canada

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  5. Hey Sarah, just want to say your description of cascade switching really speaks to me. I experience this constantly and its nerve wracking and trying to stop it feels like trying to catch a bunch of cats on a ferris wheel! Glad someone else recognizes it and can name it.

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    • Oooh I’m sorry to hear it’s your constant reality, when I do experience it it’s jarring and exhausting! Having a name for it sure helps me too. I hope you are able to work with it or find ways to settle it down.

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  6. Very well written. Thoughtfull insight into a complex and not well understood process. I had therapy yesterday and felt I was getting on top of things and the therapist thought I was ready to do some ‘mother’ work and I just went to pieces. Your blog helped me to see the bigger picture in that there are more than one way to view the experiences of being overwhelmed at times. I have been in different therapies for over 30 years and of course some have been more helpful than others. I always seem to have relapses and I wonder if we ever become trigger free so to speak. I liked your approach to this notion, or what I read into it, that we can view the flooding as a positive and valuable addition to our lives rich tapestry. That sometimes we can harvest meaningful things out of these experiences. And rather than shunning or suppressing them we can allow them oxygen and see what happens. Good work.

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    • This is going to save my life. My current doctor does not understand why I keep crashing after I meet with him. I have been doing this for 24 years now and most of what I have been through with other doctors has been extremely harmful. I do not know if I can learn and use the techniques described, but it is worth a try.

      Thank you

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  7. thanks for this post. shocked about that therapist who doesnt allow clients to cry in her office. some people should not be allowed to be therapists. Our therapist told us that metaphor about the shaking up a bottle of fizzy drink. And allowing a bit out at a time but not too much. Lots of stuff to think about. Xoxo

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  8. This is so well written and so timely for me in my personal process. My therapist has been saying these things for ages, but your describing them from the inside helps to make sense of aspects that never made sense before. Thanks !

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