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What To Do If You Get Emotionally Flooded At Work

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

Whether you were aware of it at the time or not, you have probably become emotionally flooded at one time or another. Flooding is when you become so emotionally overwhelmed that your ability to process information shuts down. It is often signaled by a physiological reaction like elevated heart rate, sweating, or tightness in your chest or belly. Triggers may include receiving critical feedback, engaging in conflict, experiencing a microaggression or witnessing something that touches a deep emotion in you. For some, the flooding response is visible—they may cry or shake or their voice may get louder or higher. For others, the reaction is internal—they may appear fine on the surface as they either withdraw or go on auto-pilot, but underneath their emotions and nervous system are agitated.

When you are flooded, the ability to process information or engage in productive conversation is severely compromised, and the risk that you may do or say something damaging to the relationship or to your reputation is heightened. The last thing you want to do is make things worse. So what should you do if you get flooded in response to a conflict or feedback at work?

Start with the body

Physical sensation often provides an early warning system for flooding. Notice your heart rate or places of tension in your body. Name it “my heart is racing” or “my stomach is in knots.” Direct your attention to that place in the body and intentionally relax it.

  • Take three deep breaths in, focusing on a long exhale. Then three more. Slowing your breathing and heart rate can help diminish the anxiety that can come with flooding.
  • Place your feet firmly on the floor and notice the sensation of grounding. Some people describe feeling dizzy or numb when they are flooded. Planting your feet helps stabilize you physically and emotionally and cues your body that you are safe.
  • Bring your attention to a site of tension and deliberately relax it: drop your shoulders, soften your belly (big breaths help with this, too), relax your jaw.

Name the feeling

Try to identify your emotion or feeling and name it to yourself: I feel angry; I feel defensive; I feel hurt; I feel anxious. If you are not able to name a specific emotion, it may help simply to name a more general state: I feel upset; I feel flustered; I feel overwhelmed. Notice that the way you phrase it matters: I feel mad, rather than I am mad. This subtle difference helps create a bit of space between you and the feeling rather than overly identifying with it. Naming your emotion is the first step to “taming” it. Once you have named it to yourself, you can choose whether you want to disclose your feeling to your colleague.

Slow down

When you are flooded, your mental processing is impeded—you may not even hear what other people say to you, much less understand and develop an appropriate response. So it is probably best if you do not respond until your brain comes back online. If you are starting to feel flooded, the physical approaches listed above will help you to slow down and soothe yourself. Even so conflict can escalate quickly, so it is best if you slow down. In addition, you might also buy yourself some time by asking the other person to repeat themselves or you can try to repeat back to them what you heard, so that you can clarify your understanding. Breathe. Slowing down may help you re-focus and continue.

Take a break

Slowing down may not be enough; you may need to pause the conversation and resume later. Often, emotional flooding is sufficiently derailing that you cannot get back on track right away. The risk of continuing a conversation when you are flooded is that you will become more flooded and that you will behave in ways that you may later regret. At a minimum, you will not be your best self. At worst you run the risk of causing harm to a relationship and/or to your own credibility or reputation if you lose control. Instead, hit the pause button on the conversation. Say, “Thank you for the feedback. This has been a lot to process. I’d like to take time to reflect before responding,” or “As you can see, I am having an emotional reaction and I’d like to take some time to collect myself and my thoughts before continuing this conversation,” or “I care about you and I want to be thoughtful about how I respond, so I’d like to take a break to reflect.” If you are in a larger meeting where business can proceed without your, you might want to excuse yourself and leave the room, take a walk around the block or go to the restroom and splash water on your face.

Practice Self-Compassion

A common post-flooding experience is embarrassment, shame, or self-judgment. Self-compassion is the antidote to judgment and improves your resilience. Again, name your feeling and offer yourself the kindness that you would offer a friend. You are human. Everyone gets triggered sometimes. Ask yourself: “what do I need in this moment to feel better?” Perhaps taking a walk on your own or with a friend, going to the gym, drinking a warm beverage (decaf if you are already jittery) or having a good cry might help you feel better. Place your hand on your heart or your belly, or hold your own hands or feet to self-soothe. Use a soft, encouraging internal voice rather than a harsh, critical inner voice.

Reflect

When you have regulated your body and emotions somewhat, reflect on the interaction and try to make sense of it. What was the stimulus that you responded to—words, gestures, tone of voice? What story did you tell yourself in the moment? Maybe you felt insulted or personally attacked. Maybe you made assumptions about the other person’s intent. Maybe you disagreed with the content. Try to understand and identify your trigger so that you can learn from the experience. Get curious about your experience. Where do you hear truth in the other person’s statements? What would help you understand the other person’s perspective better? Ask yourself what you appreciate or like about the other person. Journal about your reflections and take notes of questions you have and any self-understanding you have reached.

Re-engage constructively

The above steps are intended to help you move from a state of alarm and upset to stability and curiosity. Then you are ready to re-engage with your colleague. You may need to make a repair in the relationship. Take responsibility for your part in any conflict or misunderstanding. Apologize if you said things that were misinformed or hurtful. Ask questions to understand the other person’s perspective. Restate what you hear to make sure that you get it. Be thorough; sometimes the presenting issue is just the tip of an iceberg. Perhaps there are systemic issues at play. When you are ready, step into shared problem-solving mode (rather than blame and shame mode). Invite and offer suggestions for moving forward and commit to your part.

Commit to your own deeper work

Beyond any single triggering incident, consider whether you may have deeper personal work to do as well. Might there be patterns in the interaction that touched on past experience (in your family, childhood, or early professional experience)? Often the reactions that are triggered in the present at work relate to bigger issues from your history—maybe the feedback or conflict is just the match that lights the fire, but your past provided the kindling of wounds, beliefs and assumptions. Try to you separate out this current experience, this situation and this person from your accumulated baggage. Maybe a therapist can help you unpack it.

Each of these strategies could have been its own post, but if you step into cultivating self-awareness and self-regulation through these actions, they will help you self-manage under the most stressful circumstances to be a more effective leader and colleague.