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Emotional Flooding: Navigating the storm

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Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to Wellness Curated. This is your host, Anshu Bahanda, and as you know, this podcast aims to help you lead a healthier, happier, more hopeful life by bringing you tips, tools, and techniques from all over the world. 

In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about emotional flooding. This is a term when you’re overwhelmed by intense emotions. So it makes it difficult to think, communicate, or to even lead your everyday life and do basic tasks. Today we have with us a psychiatrist, Dr Shefali Bhatra, and she’s going to tell us and help us navigate emotional flooding and develop greater emotional resilience. Welcome to the show, Dr Shefali. 

Dr Shefali Batra: Thank you so much. I’m so glad to be here today.

AB: Thank you and thank you for helping us deal with this very complex topic.

Dr SB: I think in today’s world, we’re more into preventing illness than talking about it. So instead of focusing on the anxiety and the depression that people usually, kind of pay more attention to, I think we should focus on everyday issues of which emotional flooding, I think, is such a wonderful topic; because I deal with so much of that on an everyday basis, especially in relationships. So I’m so glad you picked such a relevant topic. It’s very interesting to talk about it. And I don’t know if people are even aware of what they go through or do they even know whether this is what emotional flooding is.

AB: So why don’t you tell us? That’s a very good place to start. Tell us what is emotional flooding. And when I discussed this topic with people, one of the things that came up was how is it different from a meltdown. Or how is it different from, say, when you experience something like heartbreak?

Dr SB: Sure. So meltdown is a pretty good word. When you are feeling, as you already introduced, the concept of overwhelming emotions, a meltdown is what you see. So meltdown is the behavioral component of that overwhelming [feeling]. What you experience, what the individual experiences, is called emotional flooding. So let’s say… you mentioned heartbreak or some intense experience that could have an impact on someone. So when someone endures an experience like that, they feel a sea, or rather not even a sea but they feel a tsunami of emotions. That feeling is called emotional flooding. Whereas the expression if you are feeling a tsunami of emotions, you’re most likely going to express that tsunami out. You may just be screaming, you may have a very hysterical kind of reaction. The other person’s wondering, hey, she’s having a meltdown, he’s having a meltdown. So you have to understand that the receptive component is called emotional flooding. You might just say, hey, this person’s having a meltdown. But what the person is experiencing is that tsunami of emotions. And if you’re feeling that volcano and feeling that tsunami, how are you going to be calm? It’s your inner world which reflects your outer world. So emotional flooding is the inner experience, whereas the meltdown is the expression of that unbearable, catastrophic inner experience.

AB: But tell me something, Dr Shefali. You’re saying it’s a tsunami of emotions, right? Don’t we all go through that at some stage in our life? We might have different ways of expressing it.

Dr SB: We do. But again, it rains in many parts of the earth, right? But we only have flooding in certain places. So let’s take the real flooding as an example. At this moment, I’m in Bombay, and you know how… you watch in the news how we get floods here? Why? Probably because our drainage system isn’t as perfect, right? So everybody feels emotions, but some of us aren’t equipped to deal with those negative emotions. And so we perceive the pain a lot more. Imagine we get hurt or we burn our hands while cooking or something. So the skin is exposed, right? The underlayer of the skin is exposed. If something touches that, doesn’t it hurt us a little more? That’s what we call sensitive. Correct? So when people experience emotional flooding, they have a different threshold for dealing with those emotions. So when they get that emotion, it seems like a tsunami to them. It may not seem like a tsunami to someone else. Adversity, all of us go through; problems, all of us go through but the reactions to the problem, through the overwhelming response, that is a matter of choice. But then comes the brain wiring— that some people are always feeling overwhelmed.

AB: Right. So what I wanted to ask you about is that I was reading on WebMD about past trauma and how past traumas or past experiences are linked to these feelings of emotional flooding. And is that what you meant when you said some people go through overwhelmed and some people are very calm?

Dr SB: Yes. So the childhood, early childhood experiences we call early trauma is very important. Like, the early love and care that you get versus the early trauma that you experience— could impact your reactions in the future, because that’s the molding point. It’s like wet clay. So when it’s soft and when it’s wet, we can mold it differently. So that is what we mean by past trauma, the memories of the past trauma which persist. And every time we experience something negative, we relive the past trauma. So the event actually doesn’t matter. It’s not a breakup or death or mishap, a loss of a job, or a negative reaction from a coworker. Do any of these experiences make you feel bad? Like I said, a little bit of rain is fine, but it doesn’t always have to be a hurricane.

AB: So we’re talking about childhood traumas, past traumas, but mostly childhood traumas. What happens when someone doesn’t have major childhood traumas? Would they still go through emotional flooding in their lives or not?

Dr SB: We could’ve triggered trauma in any phase. So you’ve heard of the term PTSD, right? Post traumatic stress disorder… PTSD, a lot of the world believes that it comes from very significant traumas, like, for example, rape and assault and things like that. But no. Every little teeny tiny event, like just the teacher telling you, “hey, you’re not listening properly in class.” You could say this to a third grader, and this kid would grow up thinking that he or she is not good enough. And so every time the person faces rejection, there is just a serious emotional outburst because they don’t even know. So let me explain a little about brain biology. So there are three main components, like three sorts of protagonists inside the brain. We have the frontal lobe, where we think and we make our decisions and our choices. This part, which we hold [points to the area] when I have a headache, is where we think. Then we have the amygdala, which is a small pear shaped organ in the center of the brain, which is the emotional controlling center. It’s like an emotional regulation center, like a control tower. So that’s the amygdala inside the brain. And then we have the hippocampus, which is where our memories come from. Now imagine the circuitry, the transmission of information… What we ultimately want is a very good organizer sitting out here. This organizer is getting inputs from the memory center. The memory center inputs first go to the emotional center and say, “hey, what should we take? What should we not take?” And then final processing happens here. And based on that, we tone down the memories and we say, “hey, those are negative. But we’ve also had positive memories,” for example. So we’re not going to react like this. We know it’s going to be fine. But when the emotional center is hyperactive, that is when it chooses to pick the negative memories. And when you’re going to have a flooding, literal flooding of negative memories, your processing center is going to say, “hey, this is a tsunami. Please react like it’s a tsunami.” And so all this that I just said over the past couple of minutes— happens in milliseconds inside the brain. You just react. You cannot process. We tell people, “hey, why did you react like that? Just take some time to process it.” But no, there is a tsunami happening inside my brain and you don’t even know it. How do you expect me to just process it? We develop this dysfunctional wiring only because we’ve had a negative experience. Let’s say if someone goes for an exam for the first time in their life, I don’t think they’re scared. It’s just that when you’ve had a failure, then you’re thinking, oh my God, I might fail again. Right? It’s a memory. And this is a conscious memory. Imagine the unconscious memories… those are way worse. So that is what comes into play in the flooding system. That’s why the reaction seems so out of place and so exaggerated. But for the person, this is just normal.

AB: Yeah. You know, Dr Shefali, I’m loving that story. You’re such an amazing storyteller. I’m loving the way you described it because I’m quite visual. So thank you for that. I wanted to ask you another thing. So you talked about the mental symptoms and how the brain functions and you talked about the frontal lobe, the hippocampus, the amygdala. What about what happens to the physical symptoms? So let’s say that I have a throbbing headache. How do I know it’s from emotional flooding and not from blood pressure? So what are the typical physical symptoms that come out of emotional flooding that you have seen?

Dr SB: It’s a very good question. I’ll tell you why because people are not so much in sync with their mental processes. They obviously look at their body and those symptoms are easy to identify. Someone would just say, oh, I have a stomach ache and I have some gastritis and acidity and I have reflux and all of that. I have gastroenterology colleagues who are referring all their patients to me because they say, this is not my patient, this is your patient. So every organ of your body can be affected negatively by emotional flooding. Headache really is a muscle pain. The headache doesn’t come from the brain unless you have meningitis, which is a part of the brain, a covering of the brain. So a headache, that throbbing headache is a pull in the muscles over the head. When you have neck pain, the muscles in your neck, back pain, the muscles in your back. Right? So stomach ache is again the smooth muscle of the stomach. So when you feel the emotion, the whole bag I was going to say, bucket-full, chock-full, bottle-full of emotions that you’re feeling at a psychological level, you’re feeling overwhelmed. But ask a person who has had a panic attack, they feel like it’s the end of the world. It’s a sinking feeling. It’s a feeling that my world is ending. And alongside, your brain is obviously sending signals everywhere. So it’s sending signals to the head. The muscle gets tight and you get a headache. It’s sending signals somewhere in the mouth, the mouth gets dry. It’s sending signals within the throat, the throat gets dry, you feel like you’re choking; it’s sending signals to the heart, palpitations; signals to the lungs, shortness of breath. I’m just going very systematically anatomically. Because every organ of the body, you’ll think that your hands are shaking or you think that your hands are frozen. All of this in the different systems of the body, like the central nervous system: which is for your headache and tremors, and shakiness; the cardiovascular system: which is your heart; your respiratory system: the breathing becomes shallow; your gastrointestinal system: which is then your stomach or you feel you want to run to the bathroom. Everything is going to be affected. You can’t just say, hey, I’m just a little psychologically flooded, but not physically. Unfortunately, the tsunami hits everything. How do we know whether it’s caused by the flooding or if it’s blood pressure? So of course, please check your blood pressure first. Please check your blood sugar. If you’re diabetic, get your bodily symptoms checked. But when you have a trigger, that’s the main thing. Like when there is a trigger, you’ll have to always look out for ‘did this cause it or what caused it?’ So first come first we need to deal with it. When you have a headache because of high blood pressure or emotionality, you still need to take a painkiller for the headache. But it’s more about the long term. We rule out all the physical causes. Obviously, first we don’t want to miss anything. But when the regular doctors are unable to identify why is this happening? So much gastritis, so many repetitive headaches, everything deserves physical attention. But if you look at the trigger and if you look at the long standing nature, then it just doesn’t add up. Then you have to assume that there is something more emotional happening here. Immediately we have to correct the symptom. But if we want to treat the problem in the longer term, then we have to identify the root of that problem, whether it is a high blood pressure or it is emotional pain that the person is going through.

AB: Thank you. Dr Shefali, I wanted to ask you another thing. So sometimes you experience this, say someone’s meditating and they experience intense gratitude, so much so that they start crying. And is there something like healthy emotional flooding or is it all unhealthy? And if there is, then what is the difference between the two?

Dr SB: That’s actually a very good question. And when you spoke of meditating, I was reminded of Vipassana. Have you ever been for Vipassana?

AB: I haven’t, but my daughter, when she turned 18, went for it. So most 18 year olds go have a party and this child said, I want to go for Vipassana.

Dr SB: Nice. So I was reminded of that. When we go for Vipassana, the instructions say that you will feel overwhelming emotions. So the reason why that happens is that your emotional center, as I mentioned, are three, the trio— an important trio: the emotions, the memories, and the processing unit. The processing unit is just in for a huge surprise because the memories that come up while you’re meditating could be so different from the everyday. Because in everyday life, we’re worried about work and we’re worried about family and our spouse and friends. I think when you meditate, you connect inwards and because the outside noise is out, your inside gets a little more time to reflect.

AB: And would you call it healthy emotional flooding when you’re going inwards and reflecting and processing your own emotions?

Dr SB: Yes, but that’s the first step after that healthy emotional flooding. I would like to teach people to never flood. Why ever have a flood, right? I mean, let’s just always be a calm sea as much as we can. Or as I would say, if this is the sea, this is fine. We don’t want it like that. So I don’t want you too high and too low, but this is okay.

AB: So basically you’re talking about what our scriptures talk about, what the Gita talks about, emotional equilibrium.

Dr SB: Absolutely. There is this branch of cognitive therapy. I’m an intense cognitive proponent, actually. I just wrote a book on cognitive therapy, which was launched a few days ago. Of course I wrote about the good old cognitive behavior therapy. But there is a branch of cognitive therapies called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT and in ACT the principles are very Buddhism- oriented, though personally I don’t follow any specific religion, but it’s intriguing. It all works as long as you make it work.

AB: As long as you make it work. Absolutely.

Dr SB: ACT philosophy, the classic Buddhism philosophy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we use it when you can’t change the outside, which mostly we can’t change, when nothing’s going to change about this situation. So accept it and commit yourself to make the best of it. In very simple words, of course, it’s way more complex than the way I described it, but in a nutshell, ACT is accepting and committing yourself to wellness after that acceptance. So that is classic Buddhism. Then there is Jainism and then there’s the Gita psychology, all quite the same.

AB: But tell me, if someone’s experienced emotional flooding, how then do they establish healthy boundaries and resolve interpersonal conflict productively so they don’t have to go through it again? And also talk to us a little bit about what selfcare you think is important in all this.

Dr SB: I think when one is experiencing flooding, I think the opposite person feels it more negatively. Obviously the person who’s undergoing that bout of flooding and is having the so called meltdown is feeling bad, but the person in front of you is disparaging you for it and saying, what is this going on? So when someone is experiencing flooding, such a person needs to at least have insight that I am being overwhelmed. If someone says, hey, you overreacted, it’s a way of saying that you had flooding. Oh, I don’t overreact… That instant reaction. Unless you have insight, you will not move to change yourself. So I think building that insight, reflection, and self reflection is very important. I think I overreacted. I think I feel this emotion very intensely. I shouldn’t be feeling that way, but how do I do it? Then comes the next step after that realization that there is a problem, then we go on to identify what we can do about it? Then we get into what roots the problem. I had a very senior executive, almost 50, 52 years old, 55 maybe. She said she always had a problem when her boss… she’s in a very high position… said her work wasn’t good enough and she’s 55 and she would cry. She would run to hide and cry. But I just asked her, how is your dad? Does he appreciate you? She took off. She said, he’s never appreciated me. I am the only daughter from five sons, and I’ve been told that you shouldn’t have been born in a patriarchal setting. And she did very well in life. She’s doing better than all the five brothers, but she still thinks of the father and she misses that acknowledgment. So when a male boss says that this wasn’t right, she relives the entire childhood experience from the PTSD, and she reacts with that flooding. So she didn’t even know this was flooding. And when I told her— that awareness was cathartic, she stopped reacting. And she said, every man who is 20 years older than me is not my father. And every man who says something, not even negative, but just gives me feedback is not belittling me. That awareness helped her change. And of course, we use breathing and relaxation techniques and other mindfulness exercises to become more aware of our emotions and not react to them. So the range of strategies is there, but you need to realize that I am getting flooded and this tsunami is sort of engulfing me.

AB: So for someone who’s trying to help themselves or help a loved one, can you give us some strategies? Number one, I think you said, was acknowledgement.

Dr SB: Acknowledging it, yes. But then the caregiver who says, “hey, you’re, overreacting,” again comes with a negative response. So for the caregiver, I would say be supportive, have that supporting hand on the back, and be more neutral, be calm, be supportive, be non judgmental and have unconditional regard for the person. Because the moment you start judging and you start disrespecting them: what sort of a mother are you? This is how you’re behaving in front of your kid. What sort of a wife are you? People come up with responses like that where everyone’s human and they react. So the caregiver has to realize that this is a problem. This is not about you, that this person is behaving this way with you. This is the person. And so you have to help the person out of it. And then both of you are going to have a great life together. So I think caregivers need to be more supportive. And yes, you should seek help. You should convince the person for professional help, but at your own level. Be supportive, be empathic, be kind, be compassionate. It’s hard, but you have to try because you love this person.

AB: Okay. And is there any kind of, like you mentioned, mindfulness? And for me, I turn to meditation for everything. Is there anything you would recommend which will help them? 

Dr SB: Firstly, take time out. If you really think that this person is overwhelming you, take a little time out. Not asking you to abandon the person or the person to abandon you, but take some time out. Reflect. Ask yourself. You have to reflect. If you don’t reflect, you’ll never see what’s going on. So you have to try and understand that something is wrong until insight comes. It’s really hard. Yes, you could try doing deep breathing, which is just taking very long, deep, slow breaths and trying to get your mind out of the situation. The number one thing is do not catastrophize. Whatever has happened is not the end of the world. Then, second, give up black and white thinking that it’s a very all or none. It’s this way and if it was not the way I imagined it to be, it’s miserable. Which, again, black and white thinking goes hand in glove with catastrophic thinking. So we need to keep both of these at bay. Third, don’t always make it personal. It’s not always about you. So why are you reacting like that? These are cognitive pegs that you can use to escape on a behavioral level. Listen to your favorite music or just I would say get out and get in a green garden and just inhale some oxygen, it’ll reach your brain and it’ll instantly rewire your neurons and you’ll start thinking fresh again. For example, I don’t have emotional flooding, but I just watch some animation. I have some set of escape animations always sitting on Netflix and Amazon Prime. And if I need to just take a break, I would watch this animation movie or animation series and that’s my escape. For someone, it’s rock music. For someone, it’s the sound of waves and for someone it is meditation. So you should do what you think works for you. So first identify that. Identify your escapes and go to them. That’s your safe spot. Sometimes there’s a person who’s your safe spot, but I usually like to tell people, be your own safety net. So if you think there’s a song that suits you, please learn that song and sing it. You might not be able to get the audio at that point in time. Find your escape. And yeah, if I may, I could show you my book. I would have told you in advance about it called ‘Why do I Feel So Sad?’ But it’s not essentially focused only on sadness. It explains this whole cognitive, whatever I told you about personalization catastrophization. There’s actually a chapter on each of those in the book. So catastrophic thinking and there’s a chapter called ‘This is what happens when you become a slave to your negative thoughts.’ ‘Black and white thinking’, generalizing filtering, ‘emotional reasoning’, ‘labeling ‘, all of these are chapters in the book which teach you your thinking errors. And then there’s a corresponding chapter in the next section to break each of these cognitive distortions or thinking errors.

AB: And do you talk about CBT in your book?

Dr SB: Absolutely, my book is CBT-focused. So this is cognitive therapy in a book. So I think it’s a must actually for any and everyone to read to prevent negative emotions.

AB: Now, the other thing I want to ask you is when there is emotional flooding, how do the caregivers or the loved ones or the family members recognize that someone’s going through it? So, you’ve given us a whole load of things on how to deal with it. But the first thing’s how do you recognize that someone is going through this?

Dr SB: I think that’s not very hard because the expression of emotions is very exaggerated. So a small little event could lead to a reaction which might seem out of proportion and that is not very hard to discern. When the reaction is exaggerated, when a particular emotion like sadness or anger or frustration or disgust or hatred, they just last for a much longer time than you think is warranted. The event has passed and it’s been resolved, but the person just doesn’t let go. So you know that the memory center of this person is just latching on to negativity. So that is when you realize that hey, my partner seems to be having or my loved one, whatever family member or my friend is having a lot of breakdowns, a lot of intense overwhelming emotions which are lasting for a very long time and they are interfering with life. For example, the person may have to take a couple of days off from work. A person may have maybe fall short of performance at work or were unable to carry out chores at home and just not eating, just not taking care of themselves. Those are signs that this is what we call socio-occupational deterioration. So socio-occupational occasions are not always vocational like a job, where you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t eat well, you don’t exercise, you miss your routine, you just forget what’s happening in your life. And that’s when the people should sort of be cognizant that something is not right. That part is what should bring attention, that hey, this needs to change.

AB: Thank you. So at the end of every podcast we do a brief rapid fire round to summarize it for the listeners. So one way for individuals to recognize that they’re experiencing unhealthy emotional flooding.

Dr SB: That’s when the same way, like I said, you feel a reaction and it feels wrong. It just feels that I’m not okay with this and my partner is not understanding and how can this be happening to me. The first sign is that if you see that you’re being catastrophic, you are flooding.

AB: Okay, and what can they do to check it, if anything at all?

Dr SB: To identify it, to or immediately do something about it?

AB: To check it, what can they do to correct it?

Dr SB: Okay, that’s when I mean take a timeout and take a breather and do it like Sound of Music’s ‘These are a few of my favorite things.’ So keep a list of your favorite things ready and keep your favorite things accessible and do them, they will make you feel better.

AB: And one regular self care practice that you would recommend. And how often should they do it?

Dr SB: I think before you go to bed at night, think about your day. And it’s a very existential, very Victor Frankl kind of philosophy: how was my day? And that question is very loaded. How was my day? Could have many answers. It was good, it was fun, it was fulfilling, it was accomplishing, it was rewarding, it was gratifying. And as you keep asking yourself this question every night, something about your life will change. You will become more mindful and you will become more in control of yourself.

AB: Thank you, Dr Shefali for those powerful tips and techniques and in helping us, hopefully in the future, navigate these very complex situations.

Dr SB: Great. Thank you so much. It was great being here.

AB: Thank you for listening to this podcast. I hope you learned something new and I hope we brought you a little closer to leading a healthier and happier life. Also, if you liked it, please do press like and I would actually love to hear from you. So please send me an email with any questions or topic suggestions that you have. My email address is Thank you so much for listening and thank you for wanting to lead a healthier life. See you next week.