When confronted with a difficult life situation, people sometimes have an experience which psychotherapists would call “emotional flooding.”  This refers to an experience every human being has had, where raw emotions are “triggered” and the person is overcome with out of control stressful feelings and thoughts.  Sometimes there is one feeling much more in the foreground – such as anger, fear, sadness, or depression.  Other times feelings shift and change as the experience unfolds.  Learning how to manage and even head off this reaction is essential to maintaining a greater sense of well-being and relating intimately and effectively with others in a deep authentic way.

Emotional flooding can be triggered by the remembering of past events, by thinking about and anticipating future difficulties, by stressors occurring in the moment.  Often a current stimulus sets off a chain reaction and the person is lost in “associative neural networks” that recreate trauma and pain.  The condition can be debilitating and behavior that comes out of the reaction can be destructive and make things worse.

Helping people learn how to remain responsive and adaptive when strong emotions are in play is an essential part of our work. Here are some beginning steps that could help you keep your feet on the ground:

Tap Into Controlled Behavior

Using behavioral means first is usually a good idea because when flooding occurs it is difficult to think clearly and keep perspective. Deep belly breathing and progressive muscle relaxation intervene directly to mediate the stress reaction and calm the adrenalized system down.  The calming occurs incrementally in small steps as you catch the emotional wave and initiate deep belly breathing for example.  The effort is repeated as the flooding tries to reassert itself.  You can read about both techniques using an internet search.  A very good book to consider getting is “The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Work Book” by Martha Davis and others, which includes these techniques and many others. It is best to practice these techniques routinely so they are available under high stress conditions. Other behavioral steps can also be taken – exercise, a walk, a warm bath that is soothing, seeking support from others.


Another good first step can be to contact and focus on physical sense impressions in the current moment – what is seen, heard, or touched as in noticing the sensations of the chair you are sitting in against your back.  Many times people are reacting to the remembered past or the imagined future as a prelude to flooding. Grounding the self in this moment can be very relieving as there is often no problem there!; and the thought and actual experience that “I’m ok right now” can have impact.  Again the effort is made to just reduce tension incrementally, and practicing present sense awareness routinely when you have a spare moment or two, will make this resource much more available when really needed.

Identify Feelings

At some point in the calming process the feelings themselves can be named, acknowledged, and accepted. Often there are underlying feelings – particularly more vulnerable feelings, like hurt or fear underlying anger – that can be contacted and facilitate the movement towards calming and ultimately resolution. This is part of taking stock of things, and not getting stuck in a closed emotional loop, where anger for example just feeds on itself.


The capacity to “self-soothe” and self-nurture in healthy ways is essential. The capacity to self-soothe is like having a nurturing parental voice inside that helps the self face reality while encouraging a sense that “it will be OK.”  The “adult” part of the ego can engage in perspective taking that undoes the black and while thinking that naturally arises in a stress reaction, leading to more clarity, and effective problem solving.   In our work as therapists we help clients further develop these vital capacities – to self-nurture and think clearly – even under intense duress.

Lean On Your Support System

Having a support system is invaluable. A support system involves trusted others who won’t simply jump on the bandwagon and inflame negative thoughts and feelings further.  Rather these are others who can hold and nurture you, as well as offer perspective and guidance as you work through difficult emotional states.   Unfortunately many people in our culture are relatively isolated and may not have such a support system, so it’s part of our job as therapists to help clients build them.

If you would like to develop these life skills further, please give us a call and visit us in Cary, or Chapel Hill.