What Is Emotional Flooding?

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 09, 2022
4 min read

Unlike flooding, a behavioral therapy technique, emotional flooding is an overwhelming emotional response. It makes you feel like you’re up to your neck with emotions and feelings.

Emotional flooding varies depending on the context. Generally, it’s whenever you’re emotionally overwhelmed by an experience. 

Of course, emotional flooding is more complex as you peel back the layers. It’s deeply tied to many other emotional responses to conditions, so parsing out the exact details has challenged psychologists for decades. 

Overwhelming emotions are the first layer. The event that causes your emotions (and how you perceive it), the feelings you get from that event, and how you react because of those feelings make emotional flooding a unique experience.

Most research about emotional flooding concerns interpersonal relationships, like in a marriage or with a parent and child. Since the definition of emotional flooding is more open, you could apply the concepts to a powerful, traumatic, or overwhelming experience.

The symptoms of emotional flooding aren’t cut and dry. They resemble other psychological responses and conditions, one reason it’s difficult to pick apart. 

Affect appraisal bias. This term describes a misperception of a person’s behavior or an event, typically assumed to be negative. 

For example, you may assume a loved one is furious if they slam a door. You’re making a biased appraisal or assumption about their mood, actions, and emotional state.

Often, you’ll categorize their emotions or actions as:

  • Unexpected or unprovoked
  • Intense
  • Overwhelming
  • Disorganizing or unpredictable

Escape behaviors. Desires to escape, retreat, or withdraw from a circumstance are typical of emotional flooding. You may feel the need to get out of the emotional situation by any means.

Alternatively, you may respond emotionally to shut down the situation. You’re trying to end the overwhelming emotions as soon as possible.

This symptom is similar to the fight, flight, or freeze response. It’s a way for your brain to rescue you from dangerous and stressful situations. 

Disorganized functions. Since your brain goes into survival mode and you perceive the person or situation negatively, you may start doing uncharacteristic things. 

You may lose your ability to make rational choices, form an organized argument, or simply function calmly. This disorganized mindset is the result of emotional flooding.

When the concept of emotional flooding was first introduced, it concerned married couples. As research continues, emotional flooding can be applied to almost any relationship. 

As a couple. Emotional flooding is most apparent in relationships with intimate partner violence (IPV). But it’s not exclusive to those relationships. 

It’s typical for couples to have conflicts. People with the tendency to emotionally flood may emotionally respond to their partner, leading to a breakdown in communication.

Couples who emotionally flood have worse conflict resolution abilities than couples who don’t emotionally flood. The frequent reason someone emotionally floods is because of a partner’s anger.

The same study also found that women in a violent relationship emotionally flood more often than women in other relationships.

As a parent. The universal nature of emotional flooding becomes apparent when you look at parents and children, particularly regarding behavioral problems

The more severe a child’s behavioral problem is, the more likely an emotionally flooding parent will respond harshly. They may use extreme disciplinary measures or be generally more hostile.

The emotionally flooding parent is likely misperceiving the child’s disruptive behavior, becoming angry in response, and punishing harshly to shut down the behavior. 

In your environment. While it’s less documented, you could easily have emotional flooding in response to your environment. For example, you may break a plate in your kitchen. 

While not devastating, you may misconstrue the severity of the broken plate and get angry in response. You may act irrationally to withdraw from the situation by ignoring the ceramic shards on the ground.

Emotional flooding, past experiences, and trauma are undoubtedly linked. People who have been in abusive or violent relationships are more likely to emotionally flood. 

Physical trauma can also lead to emotional flooding. Traumatic brain injuries can change mood and behavior, which may cause emotional flooding.

Children with disruptive behaviors and emotionally flooding parents are more likely to externalize problems later in life. This means they may emotionally flood as adults because of overreactive discipline as a child.

Since emotional flooding is tied to several other stress responses, environmental factors, and personality traits, there isn’t a straightforward fix or prevention method. 

Take a timeout. Stepping away is the simplest and most accessible way to stop emotional flooding. Taking a “timeout” when you or your partner is emotionally flooding will give you the space to release the emotional energy.

You can use the same technique for parents and children. Separate yourself from your child to prevent yourself from emotionally flooding and doing something excessive.

For parents, a support network may be necessary to take a timeout from your child in an emotional situation. Call on friends and family to help handle these situations and watch your child while you take a timeout. 

Learn distress-tolerance skills. Through therapy or counseling, you can learn to manage your emotions and diffuse emotional flooding at the moment. 

For couples, this may include couples counseling. You can learn these diffusing techniques and strengthen your conflict resolution skills to prevent emotional flooding later. 

Leave abusive relationships. If you’re in a violent or abusive relationship, find help to get out of the relationship before tackling emotional flooding tendencies. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline for more information.

There’s still a lot to uncover about emotional flooding. The spotlight has shined on interpersonal factors for decades. There’s more to learn about intrapersonal factors, like personality and history. They may play a more defined role in emotional flooding than anyone realizes. Until it all gets parsed out, stress-prevention techniques can help you avoid emotional flooding.