Emotional Flooding Doesn't Have To Damage Your Relationship. Here's How To Cope

In relationships, it's normal for couples to argue and for conflict to arise. Often, emotions are symptoms or even side effects of the tension in a relationship since arguing with your significant other can expose vulnerable aspects of yourself, especially if heartbreak feels imminent. Even for the strongest couples, emotional arguments and fears of rejection still arise from time to time, which is part of the human experience that comes with loving another person so intimately. When emotional experiences between you and your partner feel overwhelming, frequent, or intolerable, a normal emotional response during tense moments may cross the line into emotional flooding.

Emotional flooding is when your emotions become so intense you feel as though you're literally in a flood of emotions, commonly described as being up to one's neck in a turbulent emotional experience. To be clear, emotional flooding doesn't solely occur in romantic relationships and is an experience someone can endure at any time if certain triggers are present. During a moment of emotional flooding, a person may feel they've lost control over their thoughts, emotions, and cognitive clarity akin to having a mass of emotions tied together in a giant knot that can't be untangled. Men typically present emotional flooding reactions through stonewalling, aggression, or defensiveness. Women are prone to experience emotional flooding by becoming anxious, vocalizing negative self-talk, physically tensing or freezing, and desiring an escape. Knowing healthy coping mechanisms can keep your relationship afloat.

Understanding emotional flooding

Emotional flooding is an intense reaction described as a sudden influx of mixed, compounding emotions. Unlike a normal emotional response to conflict, emotional flooding is more aligned with freeze, fight, or flight responses. As the mind becomes increasingly overwhelmed with sensations of fear, anxiety, panic, or upset, the person's ability to consciously regulate their emotions disappears as the body takes over by flipping a switch and going into survival mode.

Since entering survival mode isn't a typical reaction to daily conflicts, researchers have discovered that emotional flooding is the body's learned response to physical, emotional, and physiological triggers which threaten the person's safety. It's typically learned as a survival mechanism in early childhood or during highly potent experiences later in life. Though not always the case, emotional flooding has been found to be the body's reaction to repeated experiences of fear from an aggressor, including domestic violence. Emotional flooding is inherently a protective measure that has been described as similar to dissociation, though symptoms of emotional flooding generally mirror panic attacks.

If you notice that you or your partner experience emotional flooding, the first step is to understand why. Though exposure to violence during childhood can trigger emotional flooding throughout someone's life, the response can be developed in adulthood if intimate relationships become abusive, excessively toxic, or involve heavy critical shaming of one partner by the other. 

Identify emotional flooding in your relationship

Identifying emotional flooding in yourself, your partner, or another person in your life can be done when common symptoms of extreme emotional overwhelm, followed by seemingly shutting down or physically tensing up, are present following a response to a particular trigger. It's best for medical and mental health professionals to assess emotional flooding, but to lovingly suggest pertinent resources to your partner, or to seek them yourself, knowing how the response presents is the first step.

Internal sensations accompanying emotional flooding are reported as rapid heart rate, the inability to take deep breaths resulting from quickened breathing, difficulty breathing from constricted airways, and visible tensing of muscles alongside self-protective body language that may include crossing arms over the chest. The shallow, quick breathing patterns associated with emotional flooding align with self-reported anxiety and fearful desire to flee the situation or physical space. Comorbidity of emotional flooding symptoms with anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), can exacerbate symptoms of rapid breathing, panic, and anxiety-induced overwhelm.

Cognitively shutting down is frequently attributed to entering survival mode, a symptom commonly mistaken for intentional stonewalling if others are unaware of emotional flooding. Similarly, expressions of negative self-talk can arise as emotional flooding occurs. Symptoms are unique to each person and appear to varying degrees.

Know how to handle a partner's emotional flooding

If you've identified patterns of behavior indicating that your partner may experience emotional flooding, the next step before addressing the topic with your partner is to understand how emotional flooding affects you in your shared relationship. Recognize that identifying emotional flooding and putting a name to the dynamic is a monumental step, as it can clarify blurred communication, provide context for your partner's complex reactions, and take weight off your shoulders as you apply your concerns to the framework of emotional flooding. Foremost, as a consciously loving partner, recognize that your significant other's emotional experiences aren't your doing. It's painful to watch loved ones suffer from intense reactions, but if your relationship is founded upon mutual respect, kindness, and compassion, acknowledge that your partner's distress probably stems from past experiences, and remove any blame you've placed on yourself. 

Next, consider mistaken symptoms of emotional flooding as intentional actions of hostility from your partner, possibly holding resentment for never-ending arguments or believing you've been purposefully avoided, stonewalled, or given the silent treatment when conflict arises. Emotional flooding can often manifest through fight responses, with people's nervous system's entering survival mode by unwittingly verbalizing critical, hurtful, and cruel insults. Consider writing down the ways you've experienced your partner's emotional flooding to articulately share newfound realizations you've garnered regarding your relationship.

Initiate and maintain mutually supportive dialogue

Once you've identified potential patterns of emotional flooding, the next step is to speak with your partner. You may choose to consult with a counselor beforehand for guidance in broaching the topic. Though each individual experiences emotional flooding in unique ways, there are overall best practices for initiating mutually-respectful, effective dialogue, whether you suspect your partner endures emotional flooding or you've identified the phenomenon within yourself. 

Given the sensitivity and complexity of the topic, including touching on past trauma, you should give your partner advance notice of your desire for sincere dialogue, emphasizing your desire to benefit and strengthen your relationship so your partner doesn't become fearful or anxious. Assure your partner of your support, ensuring you're both relaxed, comfortable, and calm as you speak. If your relationship has suffered from unresolved conflict, express appreciation for how you're presently prioritizing relationship matters in a calm, respectful manner. This is an opportune time to articulate behaviors you've previously mistaken for intentional hostility or to express similar sentiments if you've realized your own emotional flooding. Continuously emphasize your desire to support each other.

There's no instant remedy for emotional flooding, though the closest thing is a proactively-designed coping plan for when one partner becomes triggered. You can try stress-reduction practices individually or together as a couple. Scheduling regular check-ins when you're both relaxed is beneficial for minimizing conflict.

Create proactive coping plans

The concept of coping commonly carries connotations that coping is merely handling something or tolerating it for a minimal amount of time. Managing emotional flooding in your relationship through healthy techniques turns the premise of coping into a positive, fulfilling pillar on which your newfound open and honest communication in your partnership can flourish. Use your relationship check-ins, when you're both calm and mutually invested, to create proactive coping plans together for how you'll handle future instances of emotional flooding. Be aware that coping plans constantly evolve, as the process can be akin to trial and error. Symptoms of emotional flooding may also shift with time and improvements from various forms of therapy. Writing your coping plan down on paper to have as a visual reminder when emotional flooding occurs is also useful. 

The coping plan you create with your partner should be paired with open dialogue about how you both handle instances of emotional flooding. Overwhelming emotions rapidly accumulate during the experience, preventing you from thinking clearly and regulating your emotions and ultimately preventing positive conflict resolution in the moment. For this reason, establish an amount of time you'll both step away to defuse when the first signs of emotional flooding become apparent. A minimum of 20 minutes is recommended, though exact timing is unique to each person.

Self-soothing skills are healthy coping practices

Make the most of temporary time-outs upon emotional flooding's emergence by practicing self-soothing techniques. These methods are effective for the partner enduring emotional flooding and the partner in the supporting role. Given emotional flooding's intensity, it's vital not to overlook the experience of the supportive partner, as their experience is equally valid. 

Mindfulness habits are healthy ways to self-regulate and ground yourself in the present moment. Research-backed self-soothing methods of grounding include focusing on your five senses by channeling your attention to something you can touch, smell, taste, hear, and see. Another technique is to count backwards in odd intervals from 100 or above. Another shock to your nervous system, which simultaneously disrupts overwhelmed cognitive focus, is to actively engage in positive self-talk by verbalizing aloud compliments and praise for yourself. Within your relationship, intentionally verbalize daily positive affirmations, encouraging one another with praise while upholding mutual accountability. These habits promote self-love, defuse emotional flooding, and manifest healthy dynamics.

Self-care is imperative for both partners

Similar to self-soothing methods for calming emotional flooding or supporting your partner, self-care is an absolute must for coping with emotional flooding in relationships. Self-care, which is nothing to feel guilty about, is the golden rule for prioritizing yourself, your partner, and your relationship. Understandably, it may seem unlikely that all three can be prioritized through the same set of actions, but akin to putting your airline oxygen mask on before helping others with their masks, you can't be present and fully able to support your partner, nor completely present in your relationship, if you aren't taking proper care of yourself. Proactive self-care measures include having pre-made playlists of songs or meditations, journals, and books at the ready and keeping your gym clothes on standby for an outdoor walk. Though it's not easy, it's important to make time for your hobbies, too.

Emotional flooding places stress on both partners, especially when triggers come on suddenly, and symptoms present with widely-fluctuating mood paired with intense emotional reactions. If you're in a relationship with a partner who experiences emotional flooding or you experience it yourself, it's important to secure a strong support network to call on when dynamics feel difficult or overwhelming. You may also benefit from seeing a therapist individually or together can also provide space for better understanding nuanced dynamics difficult to discern when you're in the thick of your emotions.

Always reconnect after an instance of emotional flooding

Reconnecting with your partner following an instance of emotional flooding is critical to open communication. While floods are defined by ever-rising, uneven and unpredictable flows, coping with emotional flooding within relationships is cyclical. Coping is a circle. Establishing and maintaining regular check-ins, coming back together after intense emotions have subsided, and prioritizing self-care are fantastic habits for intentionally nurturing your relationship's health. However, don't forget to make time for deeper discussions about how emotional flooding affects you, and listen to your partner express their experiences. Since stress can exacerbate emotional flooding, keep an eye out for signs of stress your partner shows, subsequently offering to finish household chores or run errands so they can relax. Coping with emotional flooding puts open communication, trust, and intentional affection to the test in relationships, but, together, you can encourage deep breathing, patience, empathy, and understanding.

Honesty requires vulnerability to express, so trust that your partner respects you, validates your experiences, and honors your boundaries, as you do for them. Not everyone is equipped to handle emotional flooding all the time, meaning your partner may place their trust in you by confiding their limitations in the moment and then need to step away. If you ardently work together to construct a foundation of kindness and secure affection rather than drowning in increased emotional intensity, you can ensure success.