Barry EIchenbaum, Psy.D.
Stemming the Flood[ing]
Imagine you are at home relaxing on the couch when your partner yells at you “you’re so irresponsible! Why didn’t you take out the garbage today like you told me you would!”. All of a sudden, your heart races and you feel your muscles becoming tense. After recovering from the shock, you gather yourself and retort “Why are you making such a big deal about this?! This is the first time I forgot in over a week! And I do so many other things that you ask!” Your partner responds with another barrage of criticism. The conflict continues to escalate as you both hurl insults at each other, with the Four Horsemen making a frequent appearance throughout the process. After a few minutes of getting nowhere, you both storm away from each other in frustration.
How did this conflict spin out of control? What are the mechanisms that contribute to this pattern of escalation? What likely happened is that you and your partner became emotionally overwhelmed, an experience that the Gottman Method terms “Flooding”. When we become flooded, our bodies enter fight, flight, or freeze mode. When you enter this state, also known as diffuse physiological arousal (DPA), you experience physiological changes as your body prepares itself to address an impending threat. For instance, you might notice your heart rate and respiration increasing, your palms becoming sweaty, and shaking. With this increase in physiological arousal, you also may experience decreased activity in your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for emotion regulation, logic, and impulse control.
Many people understand why the flooding response would be activated when we are in a life threatening situation, such as being chased by a grizzly bear. But our bodies actually respond similarly when we engage in interpersonal conflict and detect a threat to our relationship or self esteem. Just like when we are in physical danger, when we become flooded with our partner we respond in ways that seek to mitigate our perceived threat. We may go on the offensive by verbally or even by physically lashing out at our partner. Alternatively, we might decide to repel our partner’s attacks by being overly defensive. Or we may decide to physically leave or mentally check out from the situation to escape from any further escalation. In summary, we tend to become more reactive to our partner, rather than act according to our true values.
Regardless of your response, since much of your headspace during those moments is devoted to threat reduction, flooding makes it very hard to meaningfully connect with your partner or engage in rational thought. Not only can it be difficult to try to see your partner’s point of view, DPA can even impair auditory processing! In fact, its actually not uncommon for someone to miss information completely while they are flooded! Additionally, if the flooded partner does not appropriately address this, they may act or speak in ways that trigger flooding in the other partner.
Because flooding often signals the beginning of the end of meaningful couple dialogue during a disagreement, its important to address it the moment it is detected. Otherwise, our flooding can boil over and cause us to speak or act in ways that can cause real relationship damage. Gottman recommends that the flooded individual inform their partner that they need to halt further conversation until their flooding is managed. This involves engaging in a process of self-soothing to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and de-escalate the flooding. Research by Dr. Gottman has found that you need a minimum of 20 minutes to fully resolve DPA as it takes time for the neurotransmitter norepinephrine to be diffused in the bloodstream. This can be communicated directly by saying, "I need 20 minutes (or however long) to decompress before continuing this conversation". By openly communicating in this way, the flooded individual conveys to their partner that they are not abandoning the discussion, but rather working hard to return as soon as possible. The flooded partner then engages in an activity that is soothing to them, such as going for a walk, listening to calming music, or engaging in a mindfulness meditation. During that time, the flooded person tries to focus on the soothing activity rather than on the prior stressful conversation. No matter what a person chooses to do, the goal should be to increase their relaxation so that they will soon be ready to resume the conversation with their partner.
Despite the value of pausing a conflict when flooding arises, it can be difficult to do so. One reason is that stopping a conversation midway can be frustrating for both the flooded and non-flooded partner. But what can be helpful to keep in mind is that continuing a conversation where the Four Horsemen, invalidation, and misunderstanding are likely to show up can end up being even more frustrating! Another obstacle can be that the flooded partner may feel that they are somehow “weak” for not being able to manage their emotions. In truth though, flooding is a completely normal experience to have at times when you are having a conflict with your partner. Being aware of your emotional reactions during flooding and taking the appropriate steps to tend to them shows your partner that you are more invested in understanding them than you are in “winning” the argument.