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Unpacking Emotional Flooding

Matthew Cuddeback, LCSW

Have you been in conflict with someone and it escalated to the point at which you noticed they were no longer able to take in what you were saying? They seemed to check out of the argument? Maybe they avoided engaging any further, they huffed, folded their arms, maybe they walked away? Maybe you have been this person. What happened is that this person became so overwhelmed or flooded by emotion that they were no longer able to engage in a meaningful way. When working with couples in therapy, one of our main goals is often to make sure neither partner gets to the point of flooding, and to help learn how to manage it in as health way as possible when it does happen. Below is a brief primer on what is happening during emotional flooding, how to avoid it, and what to do when it does occur.

What is happening when we are emotionally flooded is that we become overwhelmed by too much negative stimulus and our brains shift gears to decrease cognitive function to better focus on survival, meaning we are less able to navigate complex emotions. Of course, we want to make sure we don’t get to the point of flooding to begin with because it is uncomfortable, distressing, and usually leads to more difficulties communicating.

When talking about navigating these highly emotional times, it is important to understand that conflict typically comes from conversations that needed to have occurred, but didn’t, which then build and build until conflict occurs. This is crucial to stopping conflict from escalating to the point of flooding. Try not to miss these early conversations, if you are feeling frustrated because your partner didn’t show appreciation when you cooked dinner, discuss it with them. This discussion should happen with a soft startup, which is to say you should use “I” statements and focus on feelings. For example “Hey, I am feeling frustrated and just wanted to talk for a second. I feel unappreciated when I work hard and don’t get recognized or thanked for it. It would mean a lot to me if you took a minute to say thanks.” Have this conversation when the issue arises. It may not be a big deal at that moment, but if you don’t say anything then, when it happens again, you are going to feel even more angry and the conversation will be more likely to escalate to an argument.

Another key factor in managing conflict is to make repair attempts and always look for repair attempts from your partner. Repair attempts are those moments in which one of you sees that things have escalated so you attempt to diffuse the situation. This typically looks like something along the lines of your partner saying, “It pissed me off when you made that comment about me being lazy, but I know I shouldn’t have raised my voice like I did. I am sorry I got so loud, you don’t deserve that.” Repair attempts are the most predictive factor in assessing health in a relationship. If you are able to extend that olive branch and are also able to accept it when offered to you, it will likely divert the conflict from veering into emotional flooding.

Above are ways to prevent flooding from occurring, but let’s say you get there. The conflict has gotten to the point where you are just over it. You don’t care what your partner is saying, you are huffing, rolling your eyes, you aren’t even facing them anymore. But.They.Won’t.Stop.Arguing. You just get up, go to the other room, put on your headphones and get on your laptop. This can hurt your partner more, now they might think you are dismissing their feelings, dismissing them. A healthier way to manage this, is to ensure you have already had conversations about how to manage conflict when it does arise. Then, when it does occur, you can let them know that you are feeling overwhelmed and aren’t able to process it or discuss it, and you need time to slow down and take your mind off the topic of the conflict. A key component to this however, is that you need to agree to a certain amount of time that you will take a break from the argument and come back.

Everyone has a story and meaning behind how they engage in conflict, sometimes people may need to address their concern now, urgently, because in the house they grew up in they were lucky to get their needs addressed at all so when you walk away they feel dismissed and feel that not only are their needs not being taken into account, but they may also worry they won’t be addressed at all. Maybe you grew up with a family that was more deliberate in addressing concerns, you usually got to have your say so there is no rush. Set clear parameters for how to address this and stick to them and come back once you have been able to slow down and take your mind of the issue.

Flooding is the biochemical process that occurs when your brain tells you there is too much to process and address so cognitive function slows down in order for your brain to prioritize safety. This means we do not manage complex thinking when flooded and can cause even more harm. Work together when not in conflict to discuss how to manage conflict when it does arise, then when you get to the point of feeling flooded, you will have a mutually agreed to game plan. Return once you have been able to soothe yourself and reengage in the discussion more thoughtfully. Flooding tells you that the conflict has escalated to a fever pitch and a time out is needed. If you do the above, you will be better able to avoid this level of conflict and better able to manage it when it does occur. If you have experienced emotional flooding or want to work on how to avoid it, please reach out to work with our therapists on these topics and more.

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