We asked 14,000 HSPs what it feels like to be emotionally flooded. Here’s what they said.
You get reprimanded at work. Your boyfriend breaks up with you. Your rent check bounces. And these are just the “top three” things that happened today.
As a result, you find yourself snapping at a friend (or at a coworker or store cashier). Who are you? you wonder. This isn’t like me.
Needless to say, your brain goes into overdrive and you become emotionally “flooded.” In other words, emotionally triggered — so much so that your emotions take over and you can no longer think rationally. On top of which, you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), so you already feel things deeper than most, whether it’s crying at the tiniest thing or absorbing others’ emotions as though they’re your own.
What Is ‘Flooding’ — And What Causes It?
When you’re emotionally flooded, emotions take over, not logic. In a Candidly article, Tanya Gaum, an associate marriage and family therapist, states that “Flooding happens when our sympathetic nervous system detects a threat to our safety, and begins to prepare us to either head into battle or run for the hills.”
Essentially, it’s a response to stress that triggers your fight-or-flight response (which is activated by your sympathetic nervous system). It can cause physical symptoms, too, such as an increased heart rate, sweating, and shallow or rapid breathing. Gaum goes on to say it “can look like panic levels of anxiety, sobbing uncontrollably, manic pacing, or raging at your partner as if you are fighting for your very life.”
And anything can cause the flood of emotions to pour out of you — it doesn’t have to be a combination of big life changes like those mentioned above. It could be as little as you not getting enough sleep and then a car cutting you off in traffic. Or perhaps your boss gives you some “constructive criticism,” which you interpret as not doing a good enough job. (And, as a highly sensitive person, you don’t take criticism well anyway.) Or the flooding triggers a traumatic memory — and suddenly you can’t keep it together and have intense emotional and behavioral reactions.
You may also be HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) — which can add to your chances of becoming emotionally flooded more so than if you weren’t HALT.
Who Gets ‘Flooded’?
If you’re wondering who gets flooded, in a word: Everyone. However, men and HSPs are more prone to it, according to renowned psychologist and researcher John Gottman — men perhaps because they are often taught to hide their emotions (and then they reach a breaking point and boil over) and HSPs because their nervous systems are already more reactive to emotional stimuli (emotions hit highly sensitive people harder than others). So if you’re a highly sensitive man, you may be even more prone to emotional flooding.
We decided to ask 14,000 HSPs — members of our Highly Sensitive Refuge Facebook Group — what it feels like to be emotionally flooded. Here’s what they said.
8 HSPs Reveal How It Feels to Be Emotionally ‘Flooded’
1. “Emotional flooding tends to leave me overwhelmed.”
“Emotional flooding tends to leave me overwhelmed. It’s as though I’m standing in front of a brick wall and I’m unable to process my thoughts or emotions, or plan for the future. I struggle to make decisions and don’t know how to move forward. I find myself tired more easily, and even simple tasks become harder to complete. Usually, the emotional flooding builds and builds until it finally breaks. Then I can cry, experience the emotions properly, and process them.”
2. “It’s almost like dissociation — my brain kind of shuts down due to the [emotional] overload.”
“It’s almost like dissociation — my brain kind of shuts down due to the [emotional] overload. I space out, have difficulty putting words together, and feel exhausted overall.”
3. “I get emotionally flooded when I experience an event in the present that brings up a strong feeling [from the past].”
“I get emotionally flooded when I experience an event in the present that brings up a strong feeling [from the past]. Anger, betrayal, and embarrassment are my biggest triggers. My brain then recalls all of the other situations and circumstances where I felt the same way in a search for similarity and a roadmap to deal with the present event. It is amazing that the brain does this, and the ‘why’ makes perfect sense. However (and this is a BIG however), this leaves me with a powerful emotion generated in the present and all the memories of unresolved instances where the same emotion has appeared in the past. I get flooded with both emotions and memories that know no timeline and this leads to debilitating anxiety — my brain racing to a standstill followed by shutdown and all of the self-recriminations that come with being ‘overwhelmed’ again. The awareness that this is how my brain works has been an epiphany. I am currently working on loosening the emotional connection to past events, and that has lessened the overwhelming sensation of being flooded by forces unseen.”
4. “Emotional flooding for me is most intense when I experience a sudden influx of strong and different emotions that aren’t mine.”
“Emotional flooding for me is most intense when I experience a sudden influx of strong and different emotions that aren’t mine. If it is a singular event and I am in a mood that is neutral or resonates, then I ride the wave. For example, my daughter comes home from a date and it went really well — she is high on endorphins and happiness. Those are great moments to ride the wave of high emotions. If it is a conflicting emotion, or a massive overload, I freeze, panic, and fear hits me hard — and I cannot think or feel anything for a while. For example, I just spoke to a friend and she is well, but pulls into my driveway for a visit. All of a sudden, something nasty hits me that I wasn’t expecting — unexpected rage violently knocks the wind out of me. It’s like my brain scrambles and it’s a complete and total shock to my system. It leaves me paralyzed for a good 10 minutes.”
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5. “When I become flooded with emotions, my brain becomes confused and overwhelmed.”
“When I become flooded with emotions, my brain becomes confused and overwhelmed. My brain also hurts (actual pain), and I need to be by myself to process the information of emotions. Sometimes it triggers the old type recorder (wanting to harm myself or thinking I’m not good enough). Other times, I’m so overwhelmed that I cry and can’t stop.”
6. “Holidays, like Christmas — Christmas Day (particularly while getting the food ready).”
“Holidays, like Christmas — Christmas Day (particularly while getting the food ready). I always feel extremely overwhelmed and frustrated.”
7. “…When I’m expected to perform [a task] and there are so many steps to complete to finish the task.”
“One situation that shuts me down is emotional flooding, when I’m expected to perform [a task] and there are so many steps to complete to finish the task. Like any kind of planning (like get-togethers) and communicating on how (and when) to get there, and where we are going. There was the graduation party for my daughter, and the shower for her wedding. My brain starts to see each task as absolutely necessary — there’s the social obligation, along with the personal interactions and people-pleasing. It starts to form as an overwhelming fear storm, no matter how small or large the ask is… It may be organizing a Christmas get-together. Or Sunday dinner. The questions start coming from each person — their expectations and asks — and [there are so many] details. It’s as though my brain is a plug-in and all of these things overload the socket and it pops. I become unable to focus, detached, and, many times, fearful that I cannot even attend said outing; all I can do is just breathe in and out, much less coordinate anything. My family doesn’t understand, so we rely on others to plan big events for our family now, and other members of our family do the day-to-day things. [It’s all] too much…”
8. “A friend described it well for me when she said it felt like someone had their hands around your throat.”
“A friend described it well for me when she said it felt like someone had their hands around your throat. It happens when there is all kinds of chaos swirling around me that I haven’t had any notice of. Or if someone is going on and on about something scary or disgusting. Or someone is expecting me to make a split-second decision about something when I haven’t had time to think about it. Or someone is having an anxiety or panic attack around me. The biggest thing I want to do is just escape from that environment and go somewhere else — so I can focus on something else and breathe. If the weather is good, I often go for a walk. Or I get in the car and drive and listen to music I like. Or I go find water I can sit by and gaze at. I live by the ocean and it is always my happy place.”
Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System?
HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?
That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.
Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.
You might like:
- Why Highly Sensitive People Get Mentally and Emotionally ‘Flooded’
- Science Confirms That Emotions Hit Highly Sensitive People Harder
- How the ‘HALT’ Acronym Stops Overstimulation for Highly Sensitive People
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