When you hear the phrase “fight, flight or freeze,” which images come to mind? Many of us probably picture a crisis or emergency situation like a fireman rushing toward a burning building. Imagine this – fireman John just received a call about a building that went up in flames minutes ago. The dispatcher details the scene that John and his crew will approach. John’s heart starts beating faster, his palms start to sweat, and his voice gets a little shaky. It’s a scary, intense, and risky situation. One of three things will happen next:

  1. Fight: John jumps in the truck and rushes to the scene.
  2. Flight: John approaches the building but feels the threat is too great and turns around.
  3. Freeze: John becomes paralyzed by his fear and is unable to respond to the dispatcher or his team.  

These reactions – fight, flight, or freeze, are part of “emotional flooding.” This can occur during an emergent, stressful situation like John is experiencing, as much as they can occur when you are in conflict with your partner. You become so overwhelmed by emotion, that it triggers a physiological response of fight, flight, or freeze.That’s right, when you are arguing or even in a heated debate with your partner, your body responds both physically and psychologically to that stress. This is what Drs. John and Julie Gottman, creators of Gottman Method Couples Therapy, call “flooding” and it happens to all of us. 

Put simply, flooding is the body’s alarm system that sounds when we sense a possible threat. 

While emotional flooding is a very normal human response to stress, emotional flooding in relationship conflict can be difficult to manage. Emotional flooding can be brought on or made worse by certain destructive and hurtful behaviors that erode the very foundation of the relationship. These destructive behaviors are called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. The Four Horseman is another concept born out of Gottman’s research. Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Criticism – blaming a problem on a personality flaw in your partner.
  2. Defensiveness – denying any personal responsibility for a problem by either playing the innocent victim or counter-attacking.
  3. Contempt – verbally attacking your partner through name-calling, sarcasm, mockery, and put-downs from a place of superiority.
  4. Stonewalling – shutting down, not talking, and giving your partner no verbal or non-verbal signs that you are listening.

When these behaviors show up in conflict, it sets the stage for flooding to occur. Couples who engage in these patterns of conflict likely feel they are living in defense-mode with one another and are constantly scanning the relationship for possible threats. The hope of creating an environment for safety and vulnerability seems distant when flooding happens on a consistent basis. In order for relationships to survive, we must know how to pull out of flooding and take care of ourselves for the sake of our relationship. 

How to recognize emotional flooding

During their famous Love Lab research, the Gottmans would place pulse oximeters on their couples’ fingers and if their heart rate rose above 100 beats per minute during a session, the oximeter would beep, signaling that the individual was emotionally flooded. This would then prompt the individual or couple to engage in some self-soothing practices to lower their heart rate and bring the mind and body back on track in order to re-engage with dialogue instead of conflict.

Since most of us aren’t walking around wearing pulse oximeters to monitor our heart rate, we must pay attention to the signals our body is sending. If your conflicts feel like they typically end in a “blow up” situation, be sure to pay close attention to the following: 

  • Triggers: Are you discussing a subject matter that is distressing or has led to conflict in the past? If so, you may be more susceptible to flooding during that conversation and it’s important to know when you need to take a time out. 
  • The Four Horsemen: If any of those behaviors show up in your conflict, flooding is much more likely to occur. Try using these antidotes to interrupt the horsemen. 
  • Body cues: – Each person’s bodily response to stress is different. Get to know your warning signs, which may include: increased heart rate, sweating, flushing, clenched jaw, tension in shoulders, feeling out of breath, raising your voice, crying, etc. 

What to do when you feel emotionally flooded

When we are more attuned to our body’s response to stress, particularly during conflict, we will likely have more success with pulling out of a potentially damaging emotionally flooded situation with our partner. Here are some tips on how to care for yourself when you’re feeling flooded. 

  1. Take responsibility for your own flooding experience. It’s important to let your partner know if you are noticing signs and symptoms of flooding in yourself.* This could sound something like, “Hey, I’m starting to feel really stressed and I think we need to take a break.” *Try not to point out your partner’s potential flooding, because even if it’s true, they may not be in a receptive place to hear it. This may come across as critical, which is a breeding ground for defensiveness.

  2. Respect your partner’s need for a break. If your partner asks to take a break from the conflict, this can be mutually beneficial. This allows you both time to calm down and it signals that you respect their needs. Remember, if either one of you is flooded, you are not going to have a productive or meaningful conversation.

  3. Decide on a time to reconnect on the issue. Establish a communication break of at least 20 minutes, but no more than 24 hours. This allows your body time to reset but does not get into conflict avoidance territory, which can allow the conflict to fester.

  4. Try not to ruminate on the conflict. It’s not helpful to reply to the argument in your head and stew over why you are right and your partner is wrong.

  5. Relax. The ability to self-soothe is critical in times of stress and conflict. Try engaging in an activity that will help to take your mind off the conflict and is soothing to the nervous system: Take a walk, listen to music, cook something, take a shower, try some deep breathing exercises, etc.

Need more help with emotional flooding?

Consistent emotional flooding in a relationship can be extremely exhausting especially when you are longing to be close and understood by one another. If you and your partner are struggling with flooding and how to manage conflict, couples therapy might be a good next step. If you are ready to schedule an appointment and live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas, we can help. Contact us to get started. We also offer free relationship skill building workshops if you want to gain more knowledge about some of these common issues couples face.