Left unchecked, “emotional flooding” can wreck a relationship. Here’s what therapists say couples can do about it.
Think about how disagreements with your partner usually go. If they often leave you feeling defensive, talking in circles, saying things you regret or shutting down, then you might be dealing with emotional flooding.
Emotional flooding is the psychological and physiological overwhelm people experience during conflict. According to marriage researcher John Gottman, who has studied emotional flooding, when you’re in this state, it’s almost impossible to have a productive conversation.
Flooding “occurs when the nervous system detects a threat to safety and signals the adrenal glands to release the stress-related hormones, adrenaline and cortisol,” Chicago therapist Casey Tanner, founder of the queer-affirming practice The Expansive Group, told HuffPost. This surge of hormones activates the body’s fight-or-flight response, leaving you feeling emotionally flooded.
“Whereas early humans experienced more physical threats, such as by predators or weather conditions, threats to safety today are far more often emotional than physical,” Tanner, who uses she and they pronouns, said.
A disagreement with your partner that doesn’t pose a risk to your physical safety can still be perceived as an emotional threat and trigger the same flooding response, Tanner explained.
“Feeling rejected, abandoned, criticized or unsupported are all threats to emotional and relational safety, especially if these experiences bring up past traumas,” they added.
In a flooded state, your heart rate exceeds 100 beats per minute. You might start to sweat, maybe your face turns red, your hands get shaky or your chest feels tight. You find yourself unable to listen effectively or think clearly.
Emotional flooding doesn’t always look the same from the outside, though. Some people slip into “fight mode,” lashing out verbally and delivering low blows. Others go into “flight mode,” becoming silent or withdrawn, and they may look for a way to exit the conversation.
When you’re flooded, the body is dedicating most of its energy to protecting you, so there’s less energy devoted to anything that’s not related to survival — like rational thought, Tanner said.
“This is why people who are experiencing emotional flooding may feel like they can’t think clearly or are more likely to make impulsive decisions,” she said.
Why Emotional Flooding Is Bad For Relationships
When your nervous system is in overdrive, your ability to listen, process information accurately and be compassionate are all compromised. So “we may say hurtful things out of anger, fail to empathize or take accountability, and deeply hurt people we care about,” Tanner said.
You’re not going to reach a place of understanding and resolution when you’re in this state, Seattle therapist Zach Brittle told HuffPost. When this conflict pattern becomes deeply entrenched, it thwarts problem-solving, creates distance between partners and can even lead to a sense of hopelessness about the relationship.
“If I know what the pattern’s going to do, I’m going to avoid conflict, I’m going to go around you or I’m going to skip to the end where I automatically escalate right away,” said Brittle, host of the podcast “Marriage Therapy Radio.” “I’m not going to have as much patience to stay in it with you if I already know how it’s going to end.”
How To Deal With Emotional Flooding
Getting flooded during a fight doesn’t mean you’re a bad partner or that there’s something wrong with you.
“We can understand it as an adaptive response to danger,” Tanner said, “and work with our bodies to regulate back into a ‘safe zone,’ where rational thought is more accessible.”
That said, it is something that needs to be addressed for the sake of the relationship. Here’s what you can do about it:
Learn to recognize what being flooded feels like for you.
This varies person to person, so you want to tune into the signs your body is giving you when you start feeling overwhelmed.
“What are your individual signals that you’re feeling emotionally flooded?” Tanner said. “Perhaps you notice sweat stains on your shirt or start breathing more quickly.”
Step away from the conversation for at least 20 minutes — but not more than 24 hours.
It takes at least this long for your body to reset after the surge of stress hormones, Brittle said. During this time, take a break and do something soothing that doesn’t involve rehashing the argument in your head.
“If you go on a walk for 20 minutes and you think about all the great things you’re going to say when you come back to help solve the argument, you’re going to get right back into flooding really fast,” Brittle said. “But if you go on a walk and listen to a podcast about weather patterns in South Africa and then come back and go, ‘Hey, what were we talking about? Are you still upset? Can we move past this?’ Then you’re more likely to be able to do that peacefully and calmly.”
“People who are experiencing emotional flooding may feel like they can’t think clearly.”
Some people may need more than 20 minutes to reset, and that’s OK. But don’t let more than 24 hours pass before you revisit the conversation. To ensure your partner doesn’t feel abandoned, make sure you agree upon a time to check back in beforehand.
Regulate your nervous system.
Start by prioritizing some deep breathing, making your exhales longer than your inhales, Tanner said.
Then try meditating, cuddling with your pet, taking a shower, going on a walk or doing some jumping jacks.
“You are the expert in what you need, and sometimes it takes a little trial-and-error to figure out what works for you,” Tanner said.
Think about why you responded to conflict this way.
Tanner recommends asking yourself: Was the situation threatening because it was actually dangerous? Or did it remind you of an event from your past that was actually dangerous?
“Remember, a perceived threat is not always an actual threat, and distinguishing between the two can help you understand why your body reacted the way it did,” they said.
If past traumas may be contributing to your emotional flooding, reach out to a trauma-informed therapist who can support you and help you find soothing strategies when you’re in this state, Tanner suggested.
Remember that repair is more important than resolve.
Most relationship problems are not easily fixed. Solve the solvable ones, Brittle said, while creating care and compassion around the issues that linger. Keep in mind that the two of you are a team, trying to break a dysfunctional pattern together.
“I always tell my clients: Repair is more important than resolve,” he said. “It’s more important for the two of us to feel connected and still not know exactly what to do with this problem than for us to batter each other in the process of trying to figure out what to do with this problem.”
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