Emotional flooding is caused by an unrelenting stream of stimulus coming at you ‘thick and fast’. Like a real flood it overwhelms everything in its path and the level slowly but surely rises up and up, overwhelming everything in sight.
Emotional flooding is similar to hyperarousal in my article “Window of Tolerance”.
During a conflict or heated argument with your partner its easy to feel emotionally flooded. In this state of mind it’s more likely that you will say or do something untoward that you will later regret.
In this state as described in the window of tolerance article, you aren’t thinking straight, your capacity to process thought with reason has been compromised, so continuing the conversation / argument is unlikely to end well.
What are the signs of being flooded?
What if you could spot the early warning signs of becoming emotionally flooded? What if you never said those mean and horrible things in the first place!?
If you could see the flood water rising so to speak, you could prepare to do something about it.
For example, in a real flood you get to higher ground, use sand bags, and strategically control the rate of flow of damns and rivers.
The same concept applies to emotional flooding. Watch for the signs of emotional flooding, be aware of your triggers and thresholds and act accordingly.
Effective things you can do to avoid becoming emotionally flooded include:
- Taking a break – and cooling it.
- Talking about one thing at a time.
- Using self soothing exercises to regulate the flow of your emotions.
- Agreeing to work toward a solution with a positive focus.
- Being willing to admit you are wrong / partly responsible / don’t have all the facts
- Being flexible on things you can ‘bend’ on to get the best outcome for you both.
Symptoms of being emotionally flooded
Lets examine the signs and the symptoms of being flooded and understand why acting early is a good idea.
Trying to cope with too much all at once is a recipe for emotionally flooding. As you start to suffer from flooding you can experience any of the following signs in your mind and body…
- An onset and increase of stress.
- Feelings of anger.
- Conflicting information causing confusion.
- Frustration and conflicting emotions.
- Sweaty palms, sweaty forehead.
- Tense muscles and agitation.
- Itching and scratching.
- Increased heart rate (more on this below).
- Upset feeling or changes in the gut.
- Changes in breathing patterns.
- Changes in eyesight / focus.
- Limited thinking / reasoning ability.
These changes are activated as your fight / flight responses are activated.
Continuing a ‘loving’ conversation in this state of mind is near impossible, so its essential you act before you reach a point where your conversations disintegrate in a downward spiral.
For delicate relationship conversations – you can only really process one thing at a time well.
What are your early warning signs?
Look over the list above, identify your tell-tale signs. Identify your partners.
It could be a change in posture, pacing around the room, or something more subtle, a change in expression, a blank stare in the distance.
One way to monitor emotional flooding is with your heart rate. Marriage expert, Dr John Gottman discovered that many couples get flooded – with an increase in heart rate of 80-100 beats per minute.
At rest your heart rate is around 60-70 beats per minute.
In session during difficult, conversations I can monitor your heart rate with a finger pulse detection device. Being aware of this feedback helps you to become more aware of the sensations you are experiencing and better respond to the situation.
For example, taking a break and cooling it for 20 minutes if either partners heart rate rises above 80bpm
Ease the Flood Gates – Solutions to Avoid & Recover from Emotional Flooding
Things you can do yourself include:
- Breath-work, gently regulate your breathing, deeply, and slowly.
- A soothing distraction or mind break, a puzzle, gazing at a view etc.
- Pat your dog or cat.
- Creative stress relief, draw or paint, or tinker in the garden or workshop.
- Physical activity like walking, yoga, stretching.
- Mindfulness meditation audios, or sit and practice a mantra.
- Listening to relaxing or soothing music.
Things you can do as a couple include:
- Give each other the time and space for each other.
- Understand and recognise sensitive triggers / topics.
- Be aware of your delivery by managing your volume, tone, and body language.
- Agree to take a break and cool it, before either of you are emotionally flooded.
- Agree and understand that self soothing exercises are not “avoidance” or self-indulgent but a part of a sensible therapeutic approach toward resolving complex, sensitive and difficult problems effectively.
After a heated argument…
After a distressing event or fallout during a heated argument where one or both of you are emotionally flooded, being able to ‘return to the table’ at a later stage to process the blowout is an essential step for couples to maintain a healthy loving relationship.
I use a strategy based on the Gottman Institutes “Aftermath of a fight” exercise to help clients heal emotional wounds after a fight or regrettable incident.
Sometimes though, the timing is not right and we must wait for another day. Like they say in comedy, timing is everything.
Improving Conversations – One day at a time
Use the key points in your next difficult conversation. If you’re used to ‘being in the dog house’, sleeping on the couch, or getting the silent treatment for days on end; the benefits to your relationship happiness and ‘serenity’ will be profound!