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Tantrums and tears

Image: Naëtt Atkinson

Remember the last time you got really, really angry at someone or something ... and you lost all semblance of dignity, self-control, clear headed thinking, socially acceptable demeanour and started shouting like a banshee or stormed off in a huff and a puff, slamming doors and rattling shelves? I’m talking about the time you were so angry you wanted to break stuff and strangle people. Or, horror of horrors, you burst into tears in the middle of the argument.

That’s the one I’m talking about. Complete and pure emotional flooding. Head hanging shame years down the line. Argument going nowhere and calmer people sanctimoniously pointing fingers saying: "See how you behave, I can't talk to you when you are like this."

Instances of emotional flooding with very little provocation might also be happening more regularly during the last couple of months as our reserves and our resources to cope with the ongoing uncertainty in our lives, in our countries and in the world are not letting up. Our relationships will benefit if we are able to stay centred.

Emotional flooding is very real for some of us when we are in conflict. When we don't feel seen or heard the potential of our emotions taking over and running wild increases. As you, or the other person, try to get your point across in a disagreement, you speak louder or start shouting, cry easier, stop listening to each other, forget to breathe, storm out of the room and are unable to look at the situation objectively or constructively.

What we set out to say or do, and what actually happens when we are triggered are worlds apart and the change can literally happen in seconds.

Once you are emotionally flooded it is very difficult to regain composure and think clearly and rationally about the situation at hand. It is almost impossible to have a constructive discussion or craft a lasting solution when one or both people are emotionally flooded.

We use different parts of our brain to think rationally or express emotions. The cerebral cortex is responsible for higher thought processes and the limbic system processes emotions. One of the ways to limit emotional flooding and bring people back to calm is to engage the brain in a cognitive response.

Having something to look at and think about, or find an answer for, generally means a less emotional response and reduces the level of anxiety. The more in control of ourselves we feel, the easier it is for us to listen and talk in a way that our message can be received and real communication can take place. We are able to listen to the other person, engage with their perspective rationally and have an increased ability to discover the blindspots in our perception and formulate solutions to the problem.

To help people get back to equilibrium, I have developed a unique set of conflict cards with specific questions each. The combination of images and questions work well because it appeals to our creative visual side as well as require a cognitive response which alleviates stress and anxiety.

Want to see how this works in practice?

Think about any current conflict situation you are engaged in that is causing you distress and interferes with your emotional wellbeing. On a scale of 1 to 10 rate your level of emotional flooding.

Now look at the image for the blog and answer the following questions:

  1. What is the first thought that comes up when you look at the image?

  2. How many flowers in the picture?

  3. What is the first emotion that comes up for you?

  4. Which element on the card bothers you most? Why is that? Who or what does this element represent?

  5. Which element represents you in the conflict situation? Why?

  6. Use the images and tell the story from each person's perspective.

  7. What else could be going on? How does that impact the conflict situation?

  8. Would you prefer to listen to the bird or to Miles Davis? Which one will have the most calming effect on you?

Rate your emotional scale again. Did the exercise make any difference? Do you feel more in control of your emotions and did you get any insights?

This kind of activity also works well for people who suffer from hight anxiety. In that case you can ask them to look at their surroundings and find objects of a certain colour or shape.

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