Wipeout! Riding the Wave of Emotional Overwhelm

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In the heat of an argument, overwhelming emotions can rob us of our common sense. The fallout from these momentary explosions can last for years. Learning how to handle emotional storms can keep a bad moment from doing long-term damage to a relationship.

We’ve all been there: an argument spirals out of of control, and suddenly were hearing things and maybe even saying awful, hurtful things that we don’t even believe for reasons we can’t understand. While overwhelming emotions are a feature of many mental disorders, I want to focus instead on the fact that these situations aren’t really pathological. If intense, seemingly out-of-control emotions were a disorder, then almost all of us would be mentally ill at least some of the time.

I find “emotional overwhelm” to be such an evocative description because these instants are very much like wading in the shallows at a beach and being blindsided by a huge wave. For a few seconds you are off your balance, disoriented, maybe even blinded and unable to get your breath. Soon — but never soon enough — the wave passes and you have a chance to regain your feet and your composure.

We endure these dark moments both ourselves and in those closest to us. And as much as we might hope to avoid them, I believe they are a normal part of everyday life. Yet even if we can’t avoid overwhelming emotions entirely, there’s much we can do to keep them from happening more often than they have to and also to minimize the consequences.

Hearkening back to the seashore metaphor, at any given moment we have more or less poise, composure, inner peace, or mental balance, and these attributes make us more or less vulnerable to a sudden surprise or shock knocking us down emotionally. “Peace of mind” and “mental composure” might seem abstract and ethereal concepts, but for most of us, mental balance depends mostly on a few good personal habits. If you’re getting enough sleep and eating moderate amounts of healthy foods, then you’re less likely to be knocked off your game. And if you avoid drugs and only drink in moderation, if you have people you can trust and can talk with, and you’re getting some sort of regular exercise, then you’ll find yourself less at the mercy of negative surprises and shocks that inevitably come up for all of us from time to time.

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It’s enlightening to remember that what’s terribly upsetting for one person might be only annoying to another. Therapists often speak of “triggers” or specific situations and events that make a particular person more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, but the same concept applies to emotional overwhelm. If you can isolate people, places, and things that you know upset you, it makes a lot of sense to avoid them when you can. Ideally you can prevent the problem before it even happens in the first place.

Dealing with overwhelming emotions is hard enough when they’re happening to you, but when someone you’re close to becomes entrapped in emotional upheaval, it’s hard to know what to do. As we learn more about the brain, we discover that during intense emotions, the frontal lobes of the brain, the seat of our reason and judgement, become ineffective and unable to think in the sophisticated, nuanced way we depend on for everyday life. This explains why during a heated argument, very reasonable, rational statements have no impact and seem to be deflected out-of-hand when people are upset.

If you suddenly realize that the person you’re arguing with is stuck in this state, it may be tempting to continue arguing and try to jolt them back to your way of thinking, but it’s much more likely to keep the upset going. Most of the time the best move is to make a temporary withdrawal from the situation. It could be just a matter of minutes before the wave has passed and a conversation can begin after the argument has ended. The word “temporary” is crucial. Running out on an argument and not addressing the issues later, once cooler heads have prevailed, only sets the stage for another explosion. And temporary withdrawal is a skill unto itself. Even if your counterpart is upset past the point of rational thought, what you say in this moment still matters. Being able to step back and still say “I care about you, I’m not ignoring you, and I want to talk about this…just not in the way we’re doing it now,” even in the heat of verbal battle may be incredibly difficult, but it sets the stage for speedy reconciliation after the wave has passed.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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