How to Deal With Emotional Flooding in the Workplace

A woman experiencing a flood of frustration, stress and worry while working at her computer in her home office

If you ever feel like you’re drowning in your emotions, you’re not alone.

It happened again. I was in an online team meeting discussing a project idea I’d put forward. Although a fairly new team (born through Covid-19), we’d built a good degree of trust between us, and it had been a typical meeting, similar to one we’ve had each week for the past two months. 

However, it was not typical for long. After initially framing up my idea and questions in my open and honest style, my colleagues started offering their own interpretation of the project idea — different applications and perspectives. I felt the conversation had traveled in a different direction and I got lost. I sat back and wondered, What are they talking about? Did they not hear me?  

With the three of them firing off ideas and questions, it felt like we were speaking different languages. As a highly sensitive person (HSP) — someone who’s a deep thinker and more aware of subtleties, but also someone who’s prone to getting easily overwhelmed —  it all suddenly collapsed. 

I had made the mistake of not hiding self-view on Zoom (I usually hide myself), and I could see my face redden and my eyes narrow. Literally. It was strange. My heart was racing, my chest felt heavy, my throat tight, and my eyes watered. Then I went blank. 

I couldn’t figure out what I thought and had absolutely no way of articulating words. My survival brain had taken over and my thinking brain had shut down. When they asked me for my thoughts, I could not respond. I could hardly talk, let alone have anything remotely intelligent to say. 

I was experiencing emotional flooding — I could literally feel the flood of my emotions drowning me. I was embarrassed, too, which created a ghastly doubling-down effect. Science has shown that emotions hit HSPs harder, but this was new to me. 

“Fight-or-flight” kicked in next. At least I knew it and hoped that “flight” would be enough of a circuit breaker. Still drowning in my emotions and unable to speak, I put my hands in the time-out position as though I were playing basketball and needed a moment to catch my breath. The latter was true. I weakly uttered “five minutes,” left the meeting, and went to the bathroom and cried. 

Has this ever happened to you, too?

Signs of Emotional Flooding

Even though I’m a professionally credentialed coach (ICF) with almost two decades of experience working with executive and HSP clients, my flood of emotions was so overwhelming that I began to research the term “emotionally flooded” more.

Symptoms can include

  • A flood of stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol)
  • A flight/flight/freeze response (we want to run, get aggressive, or we go numb)
  • Increased heart rate (over 90-100 beats per minute) and rapid or shallow breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Sweating
  • Flushed face
  • Narrowing of eyes (tunnel vision, looking for an escape)
  • Throat constriction
  • Severely diminished ability to think or speak clearly
  • Heightened anxiety
  • Stomach churning

Psychologist John Gottman explains that the difference between flooding and other more manageable emotional reactions, such as an amygdala hijack, is one of magnitude. It’s overwhelming.

That’s how it felt for me, too. I could literally do nothing: I couldn’t speak and couldn’t think about anything other than getting out. I tried the five-finger exercise —  a simple breathing technique where you trace your fingers — to help quell my breathing, but it was hard to move my fingers and challenging to breathe regularly or deeply. As researcher Elizabeth A. Stanley, PhD would say: My “thinking brain” had shut down and my “survival brain” had taken over.

What Triggers Emotional Flooding and Why It May Affect HSPs More Than Non-HSPs

Daniel Goleman, arguably the kingpin of emotional intelligence, found that the five most typical triggers of an amygdala hijack in the workplace are:

  • lack of respect
  • unfair treatment
  • being unappreciated
  • not being heard
  • unrealistic deadlines

In general terms, we feel triggered when we sense that something is threatening. In today’s world, those threats are often not physical threats, but social threats which impact our “social brain.” So, on my Zoom call, you can see how some of these triggers triggered me, like not feeling heard or appreciated.

In addition to the five factors listed above, triggers may also include things like rejection, not feeling seen, and feeling of lesser status. And, as an HSP, all this means that I’m likely more susceptible to heightened emotions and overwhelm than non-HSPs. 

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What You Can Do to Support Yourself When You Feel Emotionally Flooded

When you feel emotionally flooded as an HSP, there are many practical tools you can draw on to support yourself, both in the moment and afterwards.

In the moment:

  • Notice it’s happening. This seems so simple, but it’s difficult to be fully aware of when your emotions are high. 
  • Give yourself permission to exit; if you can’t talk, use a time-out hand signal like i did. Then, walk away and give yourself a break.
  • If you can’t leave the situation, give yourself permission to be still and quiet. Tell yourself: It’s OK. I know it feels embarrassing, but the surprising reality is that other people are usually not thinking as badly of us as we imagine (and they probably aren’t as uncomfortable as we imagine). 

Immediately afterwards:

  • Take a deep breath, which will calm your parasympathetic nervous system. Breathing is the only thing we can do to physically tell our bodies that we aren’t literally under threat. There is no lion chasing us — everything is alright.
  • Sometimes it’s hard to breathe; if that’s true for you, consider using a grounding exercise, such as the MMFT® Contact Points Exercise, Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training, which aims to increase psychological resilience or “mental armor.” It does so by strengthening mindfulness through exercises like focused attention on the breath and mindful movement.

About 20-30 minutes later:

Once you have calmed down a bit, if you can, go back to the people you’d been in the meeting with and let them know you are OK. You can do this by talking to them directly or via email to explain what happened so they don’t make any assumptions. 

For example, you can say something as simple as: I felt overwhelming emotions earlier, but it’s a great learning opportunity for me personally, and perhaps for our relationship professionally, and I would very much appreciate exploring this with you in the next couple of days. 

Until then, you can try some of the introspective ideas below.

Over the following few days:

You then have a few days to analyze your emotions, and here are a few tactics that worked for me after my Zoom experience.

  • Journaling is a great self-care exercise for HSPs, so I’d recommend writing about your experience. Externalizing your thoughts like this is an excellent way to vent frustrations, release energy, and clarify thoughts. 
  • Talk to someone you trust and feel safe with, whether that means picking up the phone or joining a Facebook group.
  • Build your skills in self-compassion and mindfulness. These two skills alone are like super powers, I’m not kidding. Mindfulness apps some of my clients appreciate include: Headspace, Smiling Mind, Calm, and Insight Timer.
  • Take a “Balcony View,” which is a metaphor for taking an observer’s perspective on yourself and your life. Imagine your life as a dance floor. You are a dancer, moving with the music, with others around you. One day, you notice a stairwell and walk up the stairs and out onto a balcony that overlooks the dance floor and you can see yourself on it. Play with using this perspective when you are journaling and discussing with others. They’ll probably be impressed! This is a powerful tool for self and team development.

Just keep in mind that growth requires the willingness to face uncomfortable situations. It takes courage to be honest and vulnerable and discuss the situation that happened, but it’s worth it. You are worth it.

How My ‘Flooding’ Experience Worked Out

As embarrassing and uncomfortable as it was at the time, my “flooding” experience turned out positively — I did many of the ideas above and was able to make more sense of things. My colleagues and I even had a “Balcony Session” and I’m happy to say it’s made us a stronger and even more purpose-driven team.

I’m also recognizing that it’s been a big year for many of us (actually, a tiring few years for me). I’m reaffirming my work and what’s important while also dialing back the self-pressure just a notch.

Just know that when you’re feeling emotionally flooded, at work or otherwise, it’s OK to take a time-out and just do you. Afterwards, you’ll come back more cognizant and refreshed, which will not only benefit you, but those around you. 

If this article helped you, you might like the author’s website — and the coaching services she offers specifically for highly sensitive people. Learn more at Joanne Ostler Coaching.

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