Why Highly Sensitive People Get Mentally and Emotionally ‘Flooded’

A highly sensitive person experiences emotional flooding.

“Flooding” is the extremely uncomfortable feeling of being overwhelmed mentally and emotionally.

If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP) like me, you probably know what it’s like to be “flooded.” Flooding is another term for being overwhelmed emotionally or mentally, and HSPs are especially susceptible to it due to how our brains are wired.

Essentially, our nervous systems have a lower “threshold,” meaning we’re more responsive to all forms of stimulation, from sights to sounds to emotional cues. There’s also good evidence of overlap between the parts of the brain that influence our high sensitivity and our empathic responses.

In other words: The brain of the HSP is hardwired to be more than ready to respond to their world.

And at times, that response can be extremely uncomfortable. Enter flooding.

What Does It Mean to Be Flooded?

Imagine you’re 8 years old, it’s past your bedtime, but you’re desperately craving a cookie — so you sneak downstairs in the ultimate stealth mode to avoid getting caught by your parents. You open the jar and gently set the lid down, reach your hand in, and freeze. You’re absolutely certain you just heard a noise.

Immediately your heart starts racing, your ears may throb as they strain to hear any noise, your body tenses in preparation of having to move at the speed of light if your parents do indeed know you were in pursuit of a cookie… and your brain starts developing a cover story, possible explanations for being out of bed.

This is very similar to how HSPs function in day-to-day life. Our bodies and minds are at constant attention, ready to react to any situation with the necessary emotional or physical responses. (Take a breath, by the way — you succeeded in getting the cookie and sneaking back to bed unnoticed!)

Because of this heightened readiness to respond to any given situation, it’s easy for HSPs to get overwhelmed by things that may not even phase non-HSPs. For example, a highly sensitive person may be strongly impacted by:

  • Bright lights
  • Semi-loud noises
  • A change in room temperature
  • A slight change in someone’s mood
  • Anything else that changes with little warning

Given the way we’re influenced by even these subtle parts of life, the “big” things are much bigger for us too. It’s when faced with things like meeting your boss, interviewing for a job, addressing conflict with a friend, or listening to someone vent that our natural reactivity can lead us to become flooded.

For HSPs with conditions like trauma or anxiety (which many of us experience), it becomes even easier to be triggered.

How to Recognize Flooding

Flooding will look a little different for each HSP, but chances are, you’ll know it when it happens. Symptoms of flooding can include:

  • You may have a hard time focusing as your mind becomes overwhelmed trying to process lots of information at once.
  • You may suddenly feel anxious, or you withdraw mentally as the brain “overheats” and copes by turning off for a moment.
  • Your fight-or-flight response kicks in. You may debate whether you can stick the situation out or if you need to flee to “safety.” (You may feel unsafe even in situations that aren’t actually physically threatening.)
  • Your emotions may be all over the place. You may not be able to pinpoint or explain which emotions you’re feeling.
  • You may have physical symptoms such as sweaty hands, tunnel vision, or lightheadedness.
  • Outwardly, flooding can look like panic, fear, or a complete shut-down.

Whatever form it takes, being flooded is an extremely uncomfortable feeling, and it can take a long time to come down.

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7 Ways to Calm Flooding

When you’re being flooded, know that it is a temporary reaction, and it will pass — as distressing as it feels in the moment. Here are seven things you can do to calm flooding and decompress afterward:

1. Leave the room or situation if you have to.

Honestly evaluate whether you need to remove yourself from the situation. If you’re having panic or unsafe thoughts, you have the right to politely excuse yourself for a moment and do what you need to do to get to a healthy place mentally. That may mean going to the bathroom, the break room, or your car for a couple moments and breathing, calling a friend, or listening to your favorite song.

Bottom line, if you need to leave, you have the permission to do so.

2. Breathe.

This is probably the most common, over-emphasized anxiety-reducing technique ever suggested… but there’s a good reason for that! Trust me, it really does work, and it can be done subtly. You may not feel the calming of effects of deep breathing right away, because it takes time for your body and mind to catch up to your actions, but know that it will eventually help.

Take a big breath, then huff it out quickly. Or, breathe in counting to five, then breathe out counting to five again. Go slower than you feel is normal; soon your heart rate will start coming down and the oxygen will help your brain. The anxiety will tell you that you can’t afford to slow down your breathing, but try it anyways. It’s worth it.

3. Count things.

This sounds weird, but it works. You can count five things you see, four things you hear, three things you can touch, etc., or you can count to 100. Counting backwards by increments of three is especially effective as it engages the brain more than counting up, thereby taking your brain out of anxiety mode.

4. Try tapping.

Similarly, many HSPs benefit from a technique called “tapping.” Tapping involves gently tapping certain places on your own body to distract the anxious part of the brain and re-engage your logic centers. You can learn more about tapping here.

5. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness can be helpful after being flooded, as it soothes the brain and gets your focus back on the present moment. Practicing it consistently may help reduce the frequency of being flooded. If you want a guided mediation, there are many apps for this, such as Breathe, Headspace, and Calm.

6. Treat yourself.

Let’s be real — these moments suck. So, in the moment, be as empathetic to yourself as you would be to your best friend if he or she was flooded. Speak kind, non-judgemental thoughts to yourself. Validate your body and mind’s response by telling yourself something like, “Hey, yes, I’m feeling flooded, but I’m okay, and I’m going to feel a lot better in a couple minutes.”

And be good to yourself. You can be frustrated that the flooding happened, but don’t be frustrated with yourself for being flooded. See it as an accomplishment that you made it through, and reward yourself with some self-care, whether that be a latte (probably go decaf after being flooded), making a favorite dinner, or going on a long walk.

7. Tell someone.

The scariest part of these moments is feeling like you’re the only one who has them. Find someone trusted and express how you reacted to a situation. They very well might know exactly how you feel (or they may simply know other HSPs).

Either way, talking about flooding is helpful because it normalizes your experience, and then if it happens again, you already have an ally in your court who can support you as you do what you need to do to take care of yourself. (And if this is a common experience for you, talking to a professional therapist or counselor may be another great course of action. Here is a resource to help you find an HSP-knowledgeable therapist.)

If you’re an HSP, flooding might be a regular occurrence in your life, but please know that you’re not alone — and there are many ways to help yourself through those moments.

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