Many couples have at least one partner that gets overwhelmed during an argument, and may begin to shut down, want to change the topic, or leave the conversation or building. Possible reasons include flooding, conflict avoidance, stonewalling, fear of anger, fear of an unpleasant or inappropriate behavior occurring, avoidance of a certain topic, and more. Today we will talk about flooding.
According to Dr. John Gottman, flooding refers to the flooding of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into the nervous system. Once the arousal system becomes flooded, ready to fight , flee or freeze, it’s nearly impossible to resolve hurt feelings, listen non-defensively, or creatively problem solve. This response can be hard on relationships if both people do not understand and address it. Dr. John Gottman’s research shows that when pulse rate of one member of a couple that is fighting goes up 15 or 20 percent, it would most likely be better to take a break and talk at a different time. Arguing while emotionally flooded causes people to react rather than respond, it will not be constructive, and there is minimal chance of partners building trust, compassion, and support while arguing in this state.
What is emotional flooding specifically? Gottman calls it “diffuse physiological arousal It is a Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) response to stress that was originally designed to alert us to danger and enables us to react quickly in self-defense.
1. Diffuse: many parts of the body are effected at one time. It’s not a specific response, it is diffused through out many parts of the body
2. Physiological: of the body, a physical phenomenon
3. Arousal: stirring up of the neurological system, making ready for action
4. When your heart beats 90 – 100 beats per minute, your body goes into red alert. It then dumps adrenaline instantly into your blood stream. And you react automatically in fight, flight or freeze mode. Most people feel intense fear or anxiety or anger.
5. Once the “red line” is hit, your body instantly releases adrenaline. Adrenaline then increases your heart rate, increases respiration, increases sweat, slows digestion
6. You get a feeling of “system over load, swamped by distress and upset.”
7. Men are more physiologically prone than women to DPA
8. Flooding is a “bio-chemical flood” preparing your body for action. The chemicals in your body called neurotransmitters, must pass through the neural synapse, be absorbed into the tissues and passed into the urine before heart rate returns to normal. This process takes 20 minutes. You will need a 20 minute respite to completely calm down physiologically! If the stressful situation remains, your heart rate will remain elevated, and your body will pump out adrenaline and your thinking will be clouded. You will be physiologically reactive even if you “know” a different response is called for. Most people think they are calm, long before they actually are physiologically calm.
9. The threshold for DPA is different for each individual. The more stress we have in our lives, the easier and faster it is to flood.
10. In early recovery, the DPA threshold is much lower – so we flood much easier, much quicker and the reaction is much stronger.
11. DPA is NOT strong emotion alone! For example if, if a loved one dies and you have powerful grief, your pulse may not go up. You may not have a fight or flight response. But if you have panic about showing emotion in public and feel you must hide in order to feel safe with grief, then you might flood: grief + fear = flooding.
12. Like a powerful river, when an emotion flows through the body, it stays in its channel and does not flood.
13. Research has shown that the more physically fit, the more people are able to delay or prevent flooding. For example, people who exercise to the point of a light sweat 3 – 5 times a week, will respond to stressful situations with more calmness, and take longer to flood. People in poor health or a weakened condition flood easier and faster.
Why Marriages Succeed and Fail by John Gottman PhD
For more on this topic see blog post “Tips to De-escalate, Deal with Flooding, Take a Break and Self-Soothe”
Micah Brady, LICSW, LCSW-C, Certified Trauma Counselor, Gottman Educator, eRYT