You know those times when an argument with your partner suddenly “goes ballistic”?
Very quickly, everything escalates to the point where you are both emotionally reactive. We’ve all been there!
No matter how it starts, we find ourselves triggered into intense feelings of fear, shame, anger, hurt or upset. It is at those times when we are likely to lash out and say things that we regret. Or, we may shut down and flee the scene.
All of a sudden, it feels like our loving partner has become “the enemy”.
This is called “emotional flooding”
The concept of emotional flooding provides an understanding of what is happening on those occasions. This framework can help us figure out why tensions seem to escalate, and why it is so hard to resolve.
So what is flooding?
Flooding is very primitive in nature and refers to a physiological response to a perceived threat. It is our body’s response to stress that was originally designed to alert us to danger and enables us to react quickly in self-defense.
The name refers to a flood of stress hormones (such as adrenalin and cortisol) to the nervous system (known as “Diffuse Physiological Arousal” or DPA) that generates what is commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
World-renowned relationships researcher Dr. John Gottman found that because of flooding, the physiology of partners during conflict discussion can be like the ‘fight or flight response.’ This makes it very difficult to resolve conflict constructively—especially in ailing relationships.
What happens when you get flooded?
When one partner feels attacked and overwhelmed, it results in heightened DPA. This is usually experienced as a rush of physiological stress symptoms such as an inability to think, hear, or communicate clearly, as well as sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and elevated blood pressure.
The experience of flooding is different for men and women
Gottman found in his research that men flood quicker. That is, it takes less negativity for them to perceive threat and that they are more easily overwhelmed by marital conflict than women.
Once men get flooded, they stay flooded longer. Since they’re usually not as good as women at soothing and calming themselves down, they withdraw and stonewall to protect themselves. This may be a result of social factors, or of genetic or biological differences between males and females.
The impact of flooding
Managing DPA in conflict discussions is necessary. Otherwise, it gets in the way of productive discussions. That’s because once flooded, you’re left with the options of fight (act critical, contemptuous or defensive) or flight (tuning your partner out or stonewalling).
When you’re flooded, your ability to process information is reduced. It’s harder to pay attention to what your partner is saying and your ability to creatively problem solve disappears.
We cannot be a good listener when we are flooded. Empathy flies out the window, along with our humour and understanding. Resolving the issue is highly unlikely and continued conversation will probably worsen the situation and result in additional wounding of each other.
What to do when you feel flooded
The first step is to get calm. Then, you can take in better information and engage in an effective discussion.
If you find yourself flooded, knowing how to self soothe and bring your physiology back to normal is critical. That’s why it’s important to take the following steps when you get flooded:
- Learn to recognize the physiological signs of flooding in yourself and in your partner. Feeling defensive? Unable to listen to what your partner is saying? What are the signs that one or both of you is flooded? A good indication is your heart rate, which can rise to well over 100 beats per minute when you are in DPA.
- STOP the conversation. Tell your partner you need a break from the conflict discussion. You can disengage from the conversation with a phrase such as:
- Let’s take a break.
- I’m feeling flooded.
- Let’s leave this for another time, when we’re calmer.
- Assure your partner that you will return to the conversation when you’re both ready. This is not an excuse to permanently avoid dealing with the issue.
- Take time apart to allow your physiology to return to normal. Do something soothing or calming, like exercising, listening to music, reading a magazine or whatever works for you. Typically when in DPA, we take rapid, shallow breaths. Try taking several slow, deep breaths, breathing slowly, in and out, watching your belly rise and fall.
- Disengage from unhelpful thoughts while self-soothing. Replaying wounding words, blaming your partner or holding onto victimhood will just keep you flooded or escalate your flooded state. This is the time to ask yourself, “What do I know that is good and true about my partner?”
- Once calm, make an effort to calm and soothe your partner. Once you have calmed yourself, it can be very healing to extend some physical touch or a reassuring word to your partner. Decide in advance what sort of overture would be soothing to your partner (and vice-versa) when flooding has occurred.
- Revisit the conversation when you both feel calm and ready. A good break to reverse the physiology of DPA lasts at least 20-30 minutes. However, the threshold for DPA is different for each individual, so it’s important to wait until your partner is ready to re-engage. You may be ready to resume your conversation in an hour – or you may need several days or longer before you’re ready to resume. Once you are both ready, return to the conversation.
You and your partner are bound to be triggered from time to time. Share this information with him or her. Have a conversation together about flooding, and discuss what you each need to keep the conversation feeling safe. If flooding occurs again, you’ll know what to do! Your relationship will grow in the process of working through these sensitive issues.
May Soo is a psychologist who specializes in relationship counselling and sex therapy.