BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 2014 (edited June 30, 2022)
When emotionally overloaded, our emotions misdirect, destroy futures, and limit opportunity. We can strengthen our resilience and prepare for these challenges
We are emotional beings. Emotions correspond with the bumps and knocks of living, giving life richness. The excitements, sorrows, passions add color to our world. Sometimes life, in all its fury, whips emotions up into a powerful storm; chemicals race through our veins, signaling danger. Ideally, in these critical moments, we act in wisdom, managing the stress and conquering the foe, growing confident in our resilience and skill. Yet, life doesn't care about our skills, resources, or persistence. Some events (or a series of accumulating events) are too much. Our ability to process bogs down, we freeze, we dissociate or explode when emotions overwhelm.
Emotions, Memory, Reaction
Emotions prioritize experience, storing explicit details of experiences that provoked strong emotions, giving importance to the event, reminding of the past as a warning when similar elements are encountered. We scan the environment, transferring data to various modules of the brain, alerting on perceived dangers—threats to our well-being. New information is given meaning through associations to past experiences, conveying dangers and opportunity. Feeling affects arise from this unconscious process of retrieving meaning, enlivening the body and motivating action.
Significant threats poke biological systems into action, preparing body and mind for combat, the message warns, “this must be addressed!” The biological system activates, prompting immediate action. The threat whether real or misperceived moves the body to protect. Threats disrupt calmness.
A raised voice, a shadow, an uncomfortable question, a critical remark, unexpected change, or a crazed man with a ninja sword move the body through physiological changes. Depending on the immediacy and severity of the information, the heart speeds, blood flows, and complex cognitive appraisal are suspended.
Emotional Overload is when emotions become more than the organism can process. The organism adapts through various methods of disconnection.
Suppressing Dangerous Impulses
On our journey to self-actualization, recognizing bodily excitements early and responding effectively is essential. Sometimes, we must impulsively act for survival, and when events slow, evaluate the experience in detail—duck first, find out who through the rock later. But many events don’t demand this immediacy. We have time to look a little closer and act from a wiser mind.
We can utilize time to evaluate reactions, suppressing impulses that impose on goals or diminish the quality of our lives. We can replace thoughtless retorts, violent swings, or disloyal betrayals with purposeful action when we pause to think. Abundant futures require thoughtful presents. If we blindly charge through life, thoughtlessly serving emotions, our lives our left to chaotic chance.
Our blind subservience to emotion strangles vitality from our futures, leading down dead-end pathways that ruin relationships and destroy opportunities. We must intervene with top-down cognitions.
Integrating Feeling and Cognitions
Consciousness provides an evolutionarily advantage for navigating complex social worlds. We can skeptical examine and compare a variety of behavior choices when immediate reaction isn’t necessary. We can think, research, and assess several paths, choosing behaviors we predict will get us to where we want to be.
The goal isn’t to extinguish feeling, relying solely on logic. Emotions provide essential information, giving value to experience based on past learning. Logic may determine a better path, but emotion dictates where we want to go. Emotional maturity smoothly blends feeling and cognition, each benefiting the other.
See Integrating Emotions for more on this topic
When our biological functions operate smoothly, life is great. We charge through daily routines adjusting to the minor peaks and valleys of emotions. Emotions serve our survival and flourishing remarkably well. Every once in a while, we're thrown out of whack, pushing our homeostatic balance beyond comfortable windows, but we make adjustments, reign in the rascal emotions, and realign our lives.
Emotional overwhelm pushes beyond normal processing capacity, requiring adaptations that are costly. Lawrence Heller and Aline LaPierre explain in there wonderful book on emotion:
Just as a coyote with its leg caught in a trap chews it off in order to escape, in attempting to manage early trauma, the organism gives up its unity in order to save itself. Numbing, splitting, and fragmentation create disorganization on all levels of experience. Manageable levels of overload to the organism’s capacity to process are experienced as stress and distress, but when stress and distress become unbearable, the organism manages the overwhelm first by numbing, then by splitting, and finally by fragmenting. These life-saving dissociative processes exact a terrible cost (2012, location 2427).
Numbing is a psychological process of shutting out feelings. Since emotions play a primary role in memory and learning, numbing disrupts the system. Our ability to use emotions in navigating complex environments is hampered. Feeling affects still exist and still motivate; we just don't consciously recognize their involvement and can't compensate for dangerous impulsive reactions.
Often in numbing, impulsive reactionary responses, instead of understood is reinterpreted in justifying logical terms. Repairing and leaning from mistakes is jeopardized since we actions are interpreted in logical and justifiable ways.
See Self Deceptions for more on this topic
This psychological process dumps productive reasoning for dogmatic all-or-nothing cognitive rigidity. Our partner is seen as a perfect angel or a menacing demon. There is no mitigating in-between of an imperfect human that is relatively good but occasionally makes mistakes.
Splitting is dangerous because we sacrifice our evolutionary advantages of complex processing.
See All-or Nothing Mindset for more on this topic
Fragmenting is a disorder in processing experiences in agreement with our autobiographical narratives of self. Our experiences evade integration into self narratives.
This disrupts growth. When experiences conflict with our visions of self, we have opportunities for enlightening reflection. Perhaps, our life needs adjusting. Life provides bountiful lessons for growth, however, when everything is fragmented, we gain nothing from the chaos. We can be mean, bitter and hateful and not understand why we are lonely.
See A New Relationship with Reality for more on this topic
Failures of Integration
"Healthy regulation of emotions implies ample access to both positive and negative feelings, and an ability to express them, which in turn fosters self-acceptance, personal growth, and the capacity for interpersonal intimacy" (Roth, et al. 2018).
Integration is a foundational concept of Daniel Siegel's interpersonal neurobiology. Siegel explains that integration has "two fundamental components: 'differentiation' and 'linkage.'" He defines 'differentiation' as our psychological process are composed of specialized and individualized components. "Linkage," he explains, "involves the connection of separate areas to each other" (2020, location 453).
The concept of integration is that integrations makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. In emotional overload, we exclude one or more of the processes, operating on fewer cylinders than our organism's capabilities.
What Causes Emotional Overload?
Some life events simply overwhelm. We are incapable of the punishing blow, and our coping mechanisms scramble for psychological survival. The experience shatters previous safe assumptions about the world and our wellness disintegrates.
See Post Traumatic Growth for more on this topic
While this may be a single event, often it is a series of events, slowing draining resources, leading to complete depletion and burnout.
See Ego Depletion and Burnout for more on these topics
Common causes of Emotional Overload:
Preventing Emotional Overload
We are never completely immune to emotional overwhelm. Life can always deliver more than we can process. I'm not suggesting we are victims of fate with no avenues of escape. There is many things we can do to build resilience and protect our wellness. Our preparations will protect us most of the time.
Understanding the human heritage of limiting imperfections can save us from ignorant expectations of ease. Knowledge is essential for integration of thought and emotion. Science assists with understanding our seemingly lawless impulses and damaging protections.
We expand our knowledge in more domains than science. We gain personal insights through reflection and mindfulness. Understanding our propensities, our likes, and desires.
We also learn about significant others in our lives, attuning to their inner worlds.
The more accurate our knowledge the better our predictions, and the fewer surprises.
Significant memories tagged as important by emotion assist to process the present, directing action to avoid dangers fraught with unnecessary pain. The salient memories effectively alert of reoccurring threats. However, overly abusive and chaotic pasts are difficult to be categorized. The flow of information is marred, insufficiently balanced and may misdirect.
The mind protects in a variety of ways that adapts to chaos rather than normalcy. The patterns of adapting continue even when adult life is less threatening. Emotions continue to disrupt wellness—our emotional setting is overly sensitive. Small events trigger emotions warning of an impending catastrophe. We often need professional help to rein in these nuisance responses.
We need positive emotions to strengthen resilience. We need a respite from the heavy demands of stress and distress. Constant bombarding of our physical system eventually damages and kills normal functioning.
The brain needs re-setting with enjoyable experiences—hobbies, rest, pleasure.
See Broaden and Build Theory for more on this topic
We can't wait for the emergency to build life-giving relationships. Supportive others are necessary during dire events. We can't survive on our own. We gallantly proclaim, "I don't need anyone." Yet, our over-reliance on self falls flat when emotions overload. In those moments, we don't need superficial niceties, but gentleness, compassion and support.
See Supportive Environments for more on this topic
The most basic habits of wellness play huge dividends in emotional regulation. We often envision physical wellness as an entirely different field of self-improvement. It's not. Our physical wellness is closely intertwined to psychological wellness. When one is off, the other suffers.
Basic laws of health:
See Wellness Basics for more on this topic
Armor protecting against emotional overload requires more than a couple forced adjustments, the chains to our pasts don’t reprogram easily. Healthy resilience requires repeated and attentive actions. The dangerous world may at times overwhelm, overloading our systems, but if we have a safety net in place, we can survive, get back on our feet, and move forward. We may be injured and require some healing, but we recover a little wiser and a little stronger.
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Ecker, B., Ticic, R., Hulley, L. (2012). Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation. Routledge; 1st edition.
Heller, L., LaPierre, A. (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition.
Roth, G., Shahar, B., Zohar‐Shefer, Y., Benita, M., Moed, A., Bibi, U., Kanat‐Maymon, Y., & Ryan, R. (2018). Benefits of emotional integration and costs of emotional distancing. Journal of Personality, 86(6), 919-934.
Siegel, D. J. (2020). The Developing Mind, Third Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; Third edition.