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What is flooding?

Emotional flooding is a physiological response, often related to conflict. Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA) occurs when we become flooded. This means our heart rate may increase to over 100 beats per minute, stress hormones are released and we move into fight, flight, or freeze mode. It is overwhelming to the point where listening to our partners and really hearing their perspective becomes practically impossible.

Why is it important?

Dr. John Gottman’s research on the physiological response in partners before, during, and after a conflict has helped us understand that there is much more going on under the surface than we can see. Flooding occurs as a physiological response to perceived danger and it is out of our control. It is our body’s way of protecting us from what it thinks is risky or even fatal. Though our minds may know the difference, our bodies sometimes don’t yet and that is okay. This could be tied to our own experiences growing up with conflict or perhaps a specific trauma response that is activated. Each of these factors is worthy of more discussion with your partner, perhaps in couples therapy. Nevertheless, getting to know this response and how to soothe ourselves builds awareness of our bodily experience so that we can respect it and our partners through the process.

Although flooding may be out of our control, it can still greatly negatively impact our relationships due to shutting down, lashing out in ways we otherwise wouldn’t, or avoiding communication altogether in order to limit this uncomfortable and often powerless feeling. Effective communication cannot take place when one or both partners are flooded. Flooding is a magnet for the four horsemen: criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness. These horsemen are known for sabotaging communication, ultimately leading to a disconnection between partners. It is ideal to catch the trickle before it becomes a flood so that we can de-escalate conflict and get our bodies back to normal. And knowing how we experience flooding and what to do in response to it can help prevent possible emotional injury.

How do you experience flooding?

If you can name it, you can tame it. In order to care for ourselves if and when we are flooded, we first need to notice how we experience flooding in our bodies. Consider the following:

  1. What happens in my body when I start to shut down or feel overwhelmed in a conversation? Is my heart rate increasing or decreasing? Sweaty palms? Tension in the chest or a knot in the stomach?
  2. It is difficult to think clearly about what to say next? And if so, is it tempting to just slip away and not engage anymore?
  3. Or do you feel like you have a lot to say, but none of it is going to come out right or kindly?
  4. In what circumstances do I usually become flooded? Is it during a conflict? Is a certain phrase or tone particularly upsetting me?

What’s next?

Once we have explored how we experience flooding, we have that much more information to communicate to our partners. We can share what is going on for us and we can communicate our needs. This might sound something like “I’m feeling flooded and I need a break. Can we come back to this in an hour?” Developing a ritual with your partner prior to conflict can be extremely helpful in setting you both up for success. This involves exploring ways to pause the interaction, communicate needs, self-soothe, and perhaps most importantly, come back to repair or reconnect. You can find the steps to create this ritual here.