Many people struggle with conflict becoming out of control in their relationship. This is often times related to an anxious issue for one or both partners. A state known by researchers as “Emotional Flooding” can hijack a conversation and lead it down a path of great harm.
Essentially, emotional flooding is triggered when someone starts to feel a loss of control.
This stimulates a fear reaction that initiates what is known as the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response serves a very important purpose in our lives. It is a panic state that is designed to help us respond to life-threatening situations. Suppose we are presented with a confrontation with a bear as we’re hiking through the woods, our mind recognizes the danger. It then signals a number of psychological and physiological responses designed to help us survive this encounter. These things include a release of adrenaline into our system that increases breathing, heart rate, blood sugar levels, as well as a number of additional physiological reactions. Psychologically our anxiety is spiking, and our motivation to seek safety becomes forefront in our mind. All this happens to improve our ability to fight off the threat physically or to flee from it in the most rapid manner possible.
Unfortunately, when this process is triggered in marital conflict, physical fighting or fleeing is not a reasonable response. In those situations, frequently the fight comes out in verbal aggression and flight takes place through withdrawal/avoidance. In these situations, things are said and done that are motivated by the highly charged emotional state and likely are not believed by the person saying them. Withdrawal and avoidance can be misunderstood as not caring or desiring resolution. Either way, damage is done to the relationship.
It is important to both become aware of and to learn some techniques to manage this fight or flight/flooded emotional state.
First, become aware of the physiological clues that you are entering a flooded state.
Some research suggests that a heart rate approaching 100 bpm is a clue that someone is entering an emotionally flooded state. When the heart rate is above 100 bpm, it may be virtually impossible for someone to participate in a reasoned and rational conversation. Other physiological clues may likewise be helpful. Becoming aware that your neck is getting tight, your ears are getting warm, a pit in your stomach develops or some other kind of indication of emotional intensity is useful.
Second, develop some form of communication with your partner that triggers a timeout event.
Have a code word or phrase that informs your partner that you are feeling emotionally flooded and that you need 20-30 minutes to calm down. Then you can return to the conversation in a more reasonable and rational manner. Make sure that you both understand beforehand that this technique is designed to be helpful to the relationship and not an effort to simply ignore your partner.
Third, develop stress management/anxiety decreasing tools to use in these situations.
This may be breathing exercises, going for a walk, a guided prayer/relaxation app, or any number of other options that are available.
Finally, manage the stress and anxiety in your life generally.
By keeping the baseline of your stress and anxiety low, it decreases the likelihood of a stressful event in your relationship spiking into a dangerous place. Exercise, spiritual disciplines, healthy distraction, and playfulness in your life and relationship, are all useful ways to manage your baseline levels of stress.
Should these issues continue, professional help may be indicated. As important as emotions are in our lives and in our relationship, learning to manage them and to be in control of them is vital. Hopefully, some of these ideas will help you to accomplish that.
Much of this article’s information is based on the research of John Gottman Ph.D. from Seattle and the PREP Inc. group from Denver.
Written by Eric Clements, M.S.