On The Avoidance Bucket and Emotional Flooding

Raise your hand if you've ever said something like this: "All of the sudden, I just got really sad." "Out of the blue, I found myself really anxious." "What happened wasn't that big of a deal at all, but I was so mad and I don't know why." "I'm not really an emotional person, but sometimes I get so overwhelmed with these intense feelings that come out of nowhere."

If you have your literal or metaphorical hand raised, you've likely experienced what we in the biz' call "emotional flooding." This flooding is the experience of intense and consuming emotionality. The kind of feelings that make it hard to think straight and and knock you off of your feet. It often comes "out of nowhere" (or so we think), and catches us unprepared.

What causes this flood of feelings? It can be linked to a lot of things, like previous trauma or abuse, fatigue, panic, etc. But, what I've found to be one of the biggest culprits is avoidance. Avoidance is the process of actively ignoring or dismissing uncomfortable/unpleasant thoughts or feelings. For example, many people have this experience in the context of stress. My clients are often busy professionals with jobs that are intense, spouses or partners, kids, and/or commitments to various groups or organizations. They are constantly moving, moving, moving and don't really notice feelings of being anxious, upset, sad, tired, etc. They feel like life is mostly fine and that they are managing things well, but will "all of the sudden" be hit by a wave of emotions. Many people call these moments "breakdowns," where they are suddenly incapacitated and incapable of moving forward.

Imagine, if you can, a slow leak coming from the ceiling and dripping directly onto your head. Annoying, right? So you suspend a bucket from the ceiling and that bucket catches all of the drips from the ceiling. From where you're standing, problem solved! You're not getting wet and the drips are taken care of. It's basically like the leak hadn't happened in the first place. This bucket works super well until it reaches the point where it's completely full. And what happens next? The bucket overflows, tips, and you are now drenched in water. Sad trombone. This is avoidance and emotional flooding! This is what happens when we decide to ignore, dismiss, or repress uncomfortable/unpleasant thoughts and feelings as they happen. We suspend a bucket of avoidance and pretend that those things aren't happening or don't matter. And it works- for a time, but then something seemingly insignificant is the last drop the bucket can handle and now you're soaked. 

How do we avoid these incapacitating breakdowns and overwhelming feelings? The first step is acknowledgement and noticing. It's removing the bucket and allowing yourself to feel the drips as they happen and notice their source. It's being present-oriented and mindful of your surroundings. This allows you to handle these small problems and small emotions as they arise- it's so much easier to deal with a drip of water on your shirt than finding an entirely new set of clothes. It might require you to sloooow down (basically a curse word to many of my clients) and take stock of your true capacity. And it might require some deeper work, like we'd see in the counseling process. In whatever that looks like for you, be mindful of when you're placing a bucket and avoiding what's really going on inside your head.