What does it mean to be "psychologically flooded"?
April 15, 2014 8:29 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend has a diagnosed anxiety order. Oftentimes in conversation she has trouble processing what is said and pretty much shuts down. After the conversation she tells me that she was flooded and doesn't remember what we discussed. I want to learn more about psychological flooding. Can you help me find some resources to learn more about it? I didn't have much luck with my keyword searches on Google. Specifically I want to learn if there are ways I can help her become flooded less often. Thanks!
posted by speedoavenger to Human Relations (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps "flooding" is a colloquialism that she (or a therapist) came up with, rather than a term in wide usage.

Based on this (very brief) description, I wonder if what she is describing is dissociation. This is a common (and in many people, a non-pathological) response to stressful situations.

The term she is using - flooded - seems to indicate being overwhelmed, so perhaps you have an intense conversation style that she's struggling to keep up with.
posted by jeoc at 8:59 PM on April 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

When I was a teenager I had anxiety that manifested as occasional panic attacks, which are awful and sound similar to what she describes- it's kind of like asthma, you keep trying to take a deep breath but it's a feedback loop that just makes you keep taking shallower and shallower ones. You try to calm down but the process of even thinking, "I am panicking" makes you panic more. Things that definitely didn't help: People talking to me, people worrying about me, people needing a response from me, people trying to soothe me, people crowding me. Things that helped: Darkness, quietness, coolness, stillness, a bed, lying down, shutting eyes and ears, and breathing/trying to fall asleep (basically impossible but stops your heart from racing), sometimes music on repeat.

I think this is probably pretty analogous- If I were you I'd be very, very, very low-pressure and chill and not show that you're worrying too much about her, because then she will worry about you worrying about her and it will only make her freak out more.
posted by quincunx at 9:01 PM on April 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

As someone with an anxiety disorder and a bachelor's in psych, I am not personally familiar with this term, although I understand what she is talking about. Basically the anxiety (and your internal thoughts) gets so strong that it pretty much drowns out everything else. I'm not sure it's exactly dissociation. Maybe someone else will have a better term for it?
posted by radioamy at 9:14 PM on April 15, 2014

That's not an actual term but I totally understand what she means -- being so overwhelmed by thoughts or emotions that you basically stop processing input and are just living in your own head until you can sort things out and manage the anxiety again.

Have you asked her to try describing what it feels like when she's "flooded" and what would be best for you to do in that situation to help her out? Maybe she could find some way to signal to you that it's time for you to stop talking for a while and just sit with her quietly, hold her hand, switch to talking about something familiar (a pet, a place you went together, a calm memory, etc)... whatever will help her feel less "flooded" according to her.
posted by erst at 9:18 PM on April 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

The term flooding is used and this common response to stressful relationship conversations is discussed a lot in John Gottman's books on marriage.
posted by steinwald at 9:20 PM on April 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

In psychosis, schizophrenia, and some developmental disorders, some people can't volitionally divert their cognitive attention from what most people consider ignorable "background" sensory stimulus and towards a task when they have what would be sufficient time for a neurotypical person to adjust. The inability to attend to one signal when there's multiple inputs is sensory flooding.

From the neurological phenomenon of sensory flooding comes the psychological idea of emotional flooding - when people reach a certain level of emotional and physiological stimulus, they cannot regulate their emotional processing or separate out the important from the unimportant, the hindbrain perceives the whole of the input as a threat, reports it to the pituitary, which commands the adrenal glands to pump adrenaline into the bloodstream and hey presto you're in full-on fight-or-flight mode at the bowling alley or grocery store.

There's a second meaning of "emotional flooding" or "psychological flooding" that's probably tripping up your searches. As a treatment modality, for people with phobias and PTSD, flooding involves having the patient imagine the object or situation of fear or trauma in great detail in a safe environment, intentionally inducing the full-on emotional response in a setting where the patient can develop more benign coping mechanisms and more dependable emotional regulation.
posted by gingerest at 9:26 PM on April 15, 2014 [17 favorites]

Not sure why folks are dismissing the term. It's a real thing and not the same as dissociation.

You can help to the extent that you're the one in conversation with her when it happens, and to the extent she's willing to work ahead of time on an arrangement (like erst suggested, starting with a signal). You will need to know whether she wants you to stay quietly or go someplace she can easily find you.

You will need patience, and you'll need a way to calm yourself when you're frustrated by the desire to finish the conversation and be heard. Mostly, you will need to believe that this is real, and that trying to push through it with more words will not help.

You didn't mention whether she's on meds or in therapy. This is hard on her, on you, and on your relationship. That is, it seems to be interfering with life enough that she likely needs professional help in addition to your support.
posted by whoiam at 9:59 PM on April 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hmmm, this sounds like something I should look into although I've always assumed it was mild dissociation. I've had two major episodes of flooding before- I would get a terrible headache (I never get headaches) and wouldn't be able to think outside of interpreting the present moment. I'd have to depend on rote memory to do stuff and afterwards a lot of my less memorable past memories would feel wiped out and I'd have to think hard to remember them, if i could. Both episodes were due to really stressful interpersonal conflicts. I looked this up briefly and apparently each time you flood your threshold for the next flood lowers. I'm curious to see what others have to say.
posted by kinoeye at 10:40 PM on April 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Worrying about worrying about worrying... Buffer overflow.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:20 AM on April 16, 2014

While it's great you're supportive, I also think it's something she should be actively working on. I'm generally not a go to therapy type, but that level of disassociation isn't healthy for a relationship, namely because it can become impossible to discuss conflict. The person shuts down, even things which shouldn't be big deals than linger on, and the other person is then responsible for finding a way to end the conflict - whether that be bringing it up again, ignoring it, etc.

If she needs to take a break from conflict resolution, but than can come back and discuss it, that's good. That gives you a plan, but it's also important to find something that works for you. She needs to pull some weight to in terms of her mental health, it's not all on you. I generally think leaning on your partner when they're having a mental health issue is okay for the short term, but that person also has a responsibility to seek help. I just don't want you to end up feeling like you have to tip toe or treat her like a delicate flower.

I think learning healthy ways to deal with her anxiety (and this very much speaks to me of her underlying anxiety, it's a stress response, an avoidance response), and learning to step back and become more aware of her reactions before she's past the point of no return (your term - flooding) will really help her. I don't think you mention whether she's currently or has ever been treated (medications and/or therapy) but if not, I'd revisit that.

I think when someone has a quieter reaction to anxiety (shuts down versus having a really obvious panic attack) we think it's less severe, but if this is impacting your relationship enough that you asked this, it makes me think she probably needs some professional help, along with support from you.
posted by Aranquis at 3:34 AM on April 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Nthing that flooding is a real term, and it was something that I had to deal with when I was initially dealing with anxiety. In my case it wasn't quite the same as when I had panic attacks, but I would think of something upsetting/stressful and suddenly felt a huge wave of emotion that I had no control over. I would just start crying and not be able to stop for a while. I was able to get past it eventually by working on the root issues that led to it and by focusing on finding out why I felt the way I did, but it took a lot of time and regular therapy. Maybe ask her to try and observe what she's thinking about right before she gets flooded? Being able to observe our own thoughts feelings without becoming overwhelmed is one of the methods I had to learn through therapy.
posted by brilliantine at 5:51 AM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Mindfulness and grounding excersizes can help someone who 'trances'/shuts down.They are pretty searchable. One my therapist does with me, is focusing on objects/ colors / sounds in a room. Like, hey can you name five colors in this room? Can you name five objects? It helps bring me back to the actual space when my brain is just somewhere else. That is disassociation.

She could just become so overwhelmed emotionally (crying, shaking, panic attack) that it will cause the same sort of reaction, but its not quite the same thing. Mindfulness techniques work for that as well.

Sometimes a strong sensation (such as a peppermint candy, or a cinnamon candy but it doesn't have to be a taste) can help a person focus a little bit more. But it depends on the person. Its something to suggest and see if it helps.

Its definitely something she needs to work on with a therapist. It may be helpful to do some couples counselling as well, just so you can talk to a professional about working in these situations.

And of course, ask her what she needs. She'll know better than anyone here.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:28 AM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've heard flooding in the context of facing your fears: you face the [whatever] and allow yourself to be flooded with emotion, and just sit with it. This helps overcome phobias and break the negative association. "You have nothing to fear but fear itself" kind of an approach.

In your gf's case, I wonder if she just meant she was overwhelmed with negative emotion to the point that the language portion of her brain went completely offline. I've had that happen to me once. I just could. not. respond. I was damn stunned for 10 minutes.

In my case, and perhaps in your gf's, there's not much to do since who the heck knows what is in her subconscious that will trigger this flood. You can simply sit with her when it happens, be a nice stable presence until it passes. Even if you do nothing. You might not even touch her or hold her hand. But just be there, be the anchor for "current present moment" instead of whatever her mind has created. At best you could start to notice cues she gives off when its starting and ask her if its building up again because she might not be aware. But to avoid setting her off might not be the right approach in terms of overcoming & healing.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:05 AM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Flooding simply means (at least as it is used in the mental setting in which I work) being overwhelmed with emotion to the point of not being able to think clearly. A graphic that might help to explain this is Pat Ogden's Window of Tolerance. When we are in our window, we are able to think clearly. When we become flooded and "leave" our window, we cannot process information or think clearly. Most people know this as getting upset and then needing to calm down.
posted by rglass at 8:18 AM on April 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Here's some info on flooding from Alice Boyes, who blogs for Psychology Today:


One thing she mentions that I like is not just bringing up a topic with your girlfriend (esp. a difficult topic) and expecting to be able to discuss it right away, but asking when would be a good time to talk about X topic. That way, she doesn't feel blindsided, decreasing anxiety, which can decrease the chance of feeling flooded.
posted by epj at 11:15 AM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Emotional flooding appears quite a bit in John Gottman's work, where he explains it as emotional hijacking, a nervous system in overdrive.
posted by Jurate at 9:05 AM on April 24, 2014

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