Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by your emotions during an argument with your loved one that every word they say feels like an attack and you say things you don’t truly mean? If so, you may have experienced emotional flooding.
Emotional flooding is caused by an influx of emotions that coincide causing a feeling of powerlessness and perhaps defensiveness. While yes, it sounds mostly emotional, flooding is a highly physical experience.
When we get activated this way, our sympathetic nervous system is activated and releases stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol prompting a fight/flight/freeze response…. That means that physically, your body goes into a state similar to as if it were being chased by a bear. The body does a few things in response to emotional flooding: increase in heart rate, difficult, rapid, and shallow breathing, a tight feeling in the stomach, jaw clenching, and voice becoming higher. Sound familiar? Cognitively, we see a decrease in prefrontal cortex activity (the part of our brains associated with really high level cognition). This results in an inability to see other sides of the conflict, understand your partner, or accept gray areas.
These stress hormones were originally meant to help with self-defense in early humans but are generally unhelpful in an argument with your loved one!
Some aspects that can increase likelihood and worsen intensity of emotional flooding are stress, trauma, and fitness. The more stress a person experiences, the faster they will flood. For those in early recovery from PTSD or abuse, their personal flooding threshold will be lower leading to them flooding easier and faster than a normal person. Unlike individuals with more stress and trauma, physically fit people can respond more calmly in stressful situations and will take longer to get to the point of emotional flood.
Over time, consistent emotional flooding can lead to catastrophizing, distorted thought patterns, hypervigilance even in safe situations, projection of our own fears and judgements on other people, and being triggered by stimuli that are not connected to the original troubling experience. These can be internal like physical sensations and thoughts and external triggers in our environment.
All of these physical effects and stress hormones cause the body to enter fight/flight/freeze mode, making rational and respectful conversation nearly impossible. Instead of a meaningful and considerate response that considers both partner’s feelings, a person that is emotionally flooded will simply react to what their partner says and, in turn, say things they don’t mean and will later regret. These damaging words and actions can harm their partner and the relationship.
They could also cause emotional flooding in their partner as well, leading to further pain, rage, and conflict. This disconnect often disguises the opportunity for connection or positive outcome. Instead, there are multiple ways to calm down from being emotionally flooded and eventually have a productive and caring conversation that ends with both partners feeling heard and understood.
Even if you are not emotionally flooded, you may want to look out for symptoms in your partner. Some examples of this showing up could be your partner turning away from you (in the Gottman sense of the term or physically turning away), increased touching of face, closing eyes for long periods, and fluttering eyelids.
When flooding happens… we need a break.
To become physiologically calm again, you will need to pause for at least 20 minutes to allow for the chemicals released during the process to be slowly passed into urine. It is only then that the heart rate may return to normal. If this minimum 20 minute period is not taken, stress hormones will continue to be released and heart rate will stay elevated. Although you may realize that conversation is important and necessary, if the proper time to calm down is not achieved, respectful consideration and discussion is not likely.
So, kindly call a timeout. This is done best when you both have agreed upon this plan of action ahead of time (in a non-tense or stressful moment). This call to timeout may be a mutually agreed upon word or phrase. At that time, you must make a plan for when you will come back together to continue the conversation. Yes, we still have to do that! Taking a break is not a full stop. It’s a break. Have a brief discussion on when and how you will return to this. “OK, let’s meet back in the kitchen in 30 minutes to continue our conversation” or “How about we continue our conversation after the kids go to bed tonight?” Make a plan. Make sure everyone knows what it is.
Then take your break. A minimum of 20 minutes…. Engaged in something calming. That can be going for a walk, deep breathing, taking a shower, reading a book. Whatever provides you a sense of calm. Not 20 minutes of stewing and thinking “well when I get back I’m going to say points A and B and C!” and “I can’t believe they….” Nope. 20 minutes of calm. If you do 20 minutes of stewing, you will be just as activated when you return and we have to start all over again.
So, how do we come from these high emotions? Luckily there are many options!
When you come back from your break, you’ll hopefully be ready to turn towards your partner and continue the conversation in a new, healthier way. This reconvening does not mean you must completely resolve the conversation or conflict. It means… you touch on it again and do the next piece of work that you can.
Flooding can derail things fast. Knowing some simple things to look out for, some self-awareness about when it may happen, and respecting your relationship enough to pause when it’s necessary can go a long way in reducing the negative impact of flooding in relationships.
Good luck with it!
Samantha Morel, Ph.D.