You’ve probably heard the phrase: Fight-or-Flight. This phrase is describing DPA (Diffused Physiological Arousal) or what therapists call “Flooding.”
When someone is flooded, their brain shuts down the rational prefrontal cortex, the logical thinking part of the brain that allows you to utilize higher thought process. This part of the brain allows us to take in other points-of-views, consider additional information, and stay focused on the issue without getting sidetracked.
When this function temporarily goes offline, a person is unable to engage in a productive conversation. You lose the ability to access humor, empathy, creative problem-solving, and are unable to think clearly. You become deaf to anything your partner is saying and it gets filtered through as criticism.
A narrative of blame takes shape in your mind. You might start accusing your partner of past infractions and you might start laying out your score card (who does what in the relationship).
The diverted blood that fuels rational thinking goes to your muscles so you can fight or flee.
Someone who is flooded may experience:
- Tightness in their muscles
- May feel jittery
- Experience cramps in their stomach
- Jaw may clench
- Experience dry mouth
- Flushed skin
- Start to sweat
- Feel shaky
- Have rapid breathing and shallow breaths
- Heart rate over 100 bpm
- Blood pressure will increase
- Experience tunnel vision
- May repeat themselves
These experiences are indicators that your nervous system is reacting to a perceived threat and is getting you ready to fight or flee by sending out cortisol and adrenaline.
As such, our natural inclination to keep on talking when we have reached this state almost always makes the situation worse because our bodies are primed and ready to fight and that manifests in words, usually the angry, hurtful kind.
When we are in this emotional state we may say things or do things that convey a message we do not intend, and that might hurt our partner and trigger them.
When we opt to flee we may leave the room or stop talking. Someone in this state may appear calm, but on the inside they feel chaotic. The retreat is an attempt to self-soothe and to escape the interaction. They are simply trying to diffuse what is happening inside them before it escalates.
Withdrawal isn’t a way to punish or abandon, it’s a way to calm down. To a partner, it may look like shutting down or not caring, which often elicits a stronger reaction from the partner such as: to get louder, call names, accuse, and follow your partner around as they try to flee.
In order to manage flooding, couples need to do the following:
1. Know Your Triggers
Pay attention to your physical reactions. Trace them to what was said or what body language you reacted to. By being able to identify what sets us off, we are better prepared to make difference choices in the moment when they present themselves. If we know what triggers us, we can share it with our partner so they don’t unintentionally trigger us. Once you know your triggers, you will find that you’ll have more control over how you manage your reaction.
2. Know Your Partners Triggers
You need to know their triggers so you don’t unintentionally trigger them.
3. Know Your Bodily Symptoms
Become an expert on what happens to you when you become flooded. What thoughts run through your head and what do you feel in your body? If you notice tension in your body, work on relaxing those areas. Reflect on arguments of the past and see if you can recall what you felt in your body during those moments.
The trick is to be able to ID when you are getting close to flooding so you can call a time out. And get your partners feedback about their experience of you when things are a bit tense; sometimes partners can clue us in on things we miss.
4. Master Self-Soothing
Take deep breathes to help slow down your heart rate which will help get blood pumping back to your prefrontal cortex and bring those higher thought processes back online. Inhale for a count of four and exhale for another count of four. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. When you inhale make sure your shoulders are not moving up and down, but instead focus on your stomach extending out when you inhale.
Consider your five senses to help you self-soothe. Go for a walk, exercise, swim, or do yoga. Soak in a bubble bath, take a hot shower, walk barefoot on a soft rug, or wrap up in a soft blanket. Listen to some music, read a book, light some aroma therapy candles while you watch an episode of your favorite show. All of these serve to distract you and assist your body in returning to a relaxed state.
Store a mental picture of your partner. This should be a memory of a time when they were at their best and you felt loved and respected by them. A moment when they were generous. Make the memory strong by adding positive details. When you start to get flooded retrieve this memory and focus on it. This helps you move from being reactive to being more relaxed.
5. Agree To A Time Out
When things are neutral, set a time for your time out. It should be at least 20-30 minutes because that’s how long it takes the average person’s system to reset.
When either one of you start to feel like you’re going to become flooded, take the agreed upon time out. You can even call a time out if you notice your partner is becoming flooded.
Honor the time out.
When we become activated, we want to avoid saying something we will later regret. We want to be able to connect and engage with our partner. So take the time out and use that time to self-sooth.
Partners need to go to separate places where they won’t hear or see each other. Don’t get in the car and drive off. While in time out DO NOT keep the argument going in your head, this will only keep you flooded. When the 20-30 minutes have passed, return to talk. If you, or your partner, is still flooded then take another time out. If at the end of that time out one of you is still unable to resume the conversation, then agree to table the discussion for 24 hours.
If you delay resuming the conversation more than 24 hours, your partner may feel abandoned or feel like the delay is an attempt to punish them. So resume the discussion as soon as everyone has returned to a relaxed state.
Make a commitment to self-soothe, give your bodies time to reset, and then check back in with each other. The relationship will benefit when each person is mindful of what triggers the other and takes intentional steps to avoid those triggers so that emotional conversations can be had without it turning into an unnecessary fight.