In the previous post, I discussed the four horsemen of the apocalypse and how to defeat them. In this post, I want to talk about a related issue of stonewalling; emotional flooding. It is one of the biggest relationship challenges people struggle with. Like all relationship problems, this one is not unique. Even the masters of relationship experiences it sometimes. But if you don’t know how to respond to it, it can escalate conflict and create disconnection between you and your partner. Fortunately, many of the steps you can take to resolve it are pretty simple. Not necessarily easy, but simple. So, what is emotional flooding?
Emotional flooding is your body’s physiological reaction to a perceived threat, real or imagined. Automatic, instinctive, reactive emotions rush in to protect you from a threat. These intense feelings, thoughts, or sensations overwhelm your ability to integrate them into the present moment. Your body’s system doesn’t know what to do. Your ability to think clearly and logically about the situation is lost and your fight/flight/freeze reactions kick in.
Emotional flooding can be difficult to identify because it’s diffuse and can manifest in different ways. It’s a lot easier to recognize when emotional flooding is occurring when there’s a clear and specific feeling. For example, your blood pressure might rise.Your heart rate often rises to over 100 beats per minute, sometimes as high 165 beats per minute. Keep in mind that a typical heart rate for a relatively healthy 30-year-old man is 76 beats per minute and for a 30-year-old woman it’s 82 beats per minute. Your hands begin to sweat, and your breathing becomes irregular and shallow. You might get a headache. You might breathe irregularly or hyperventilate. You might feel confused, or have difficulty thinking or responding to questions. You might feel a range of emotions such as anger, panic, frustration, or boredom with the situation. Emotional flooding can also feel like a low-level discomfort throughout your body, which is harder to pin down. Often you don’t realize that it’s happening until it comes out at your partner or someone else.
The experience of flooding is different for men and women. Men, in general, flood quicker and it takes less negativity for them to perceive a threat. They are more easily overwhelmed by marital conflict, typically because they have less developed and effective communication skills than women. This is one reason why the female softened start up is so important. Men are usually not very good at soothing and calming themselves down, they withdraw and stonewall to protect themselves. As soon they withdraw from the threat, their heart rate drops bringing a sense of relief. Women are more readily able to calm down from a flooded state, usually within 20 minutes.
Additionally, emotional flooding takes on a life of its own. The more often you get flooded, the harder it becomes to calm yourself down when you do get flooded. Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, calls this emotional high jacking. You can read more about it in the link.
The good news is, there are some simple tools we can use to take care of the flooding. The most important one is to slow down and step back from whatever is overwhelming your system. That can be tricky when the catalyst for the flooding is a conflict or a heated discussion with your partner. Taking a step back often looks like stonewalling and thus looks like disengagement. Learning how your body reacts to a threat is the first step to dealing with emotional flooding and knowing when to take a break. If you take a break in a way that feels like you’re disengaging from or abandoning your partner, it will have the opposite effect, escalating the conflict.
You’ll probably find it more helpful to tell your partner something like, “I’m feeling flooded and it’s making it hard for me to talk about this. I need to take some time to calm down. I’m going to go for a walk, and I’ll be back in 20 minutes.” You don’t have to use these exact words, so here are the key points:
- Say that you’re feeling flooded, taking responsibility for yourself, rather than blaming your partner.
- Briefly explain that you want to be able to engage productively, and being flooded is getting in the way.
- Take responsibility for self-soothing and coming back into self-regulation.
- Tell them what you’re going to do in order to self-soothe.
- Commit to coming back once you’ve settled down.
You might need to practice this in order to figure out what words feel right to you. You might find it helpful to talk with your partner about how to take a break in advance so the two of you can refine your language.
Self-soothing is all about lowering the amygdala activation and allowing your system to come back into balance. For many people, it takes about 20 minutes for the body to process the flood of adrenaline, this means you’ll need at least that long before you can come back to the conversation. You might need more or less time. There are many different ways to self-soothe. For example, focusing attention on something neutral or positive helps because it engages the brain and helps bring the ability to think clearly back online. Going for a walk and thinking about how much your partner irritates you is not going to work because reinforces the flooding emotions. What I suggest to my clients is that they cognitively engage in some activity that helps get their mind off the conflict and their partner. If you are having trouble with getting your mind off your partner, then you can actively engage in a cognitive exercise that helps you think less negatively about them. For example, you might think to yourself about some of the characteristics your enjoy or admire about your partner rather than the one that currently has you flooded. Another thing that can help is to slow your breathing down by, setting a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and follow a deep breathing or muscle relaxation script.