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Making Sure Emotional Flooding Doesn’t Capsize Your Relationship

Read how emotional flooding ignites your fight-or-flight mode and ways to avoid this so you don’t derail your conflict management.

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Does this sound familiar? You are in the middle of a conflict or disagreement when your partner says or does something. Suddenly you fall down a deep dark rabbit hole of rage, hurt, panic, and fear.

Emotional Flooding: The riptide

When caught in one of these riptides, you may have the physical sensation of something taking hold of your body. Your muscles clench, your temperature skyrockets, or your stomach turns. With a mind in overdrive, you are deaf to anything your partner says. Sometimes when you’re all caught up, your thought process is not sound. However, that is not likely to dampen your urge to fight (or flight).

The difference between flooding and more manageable experiences of one’s emotions is one of magnitude. You reach the point when your thinking brain—the part that can take in gray areas, consider other sides, stay aware of the real state of affairs—shut down. Psychologist Dr. John Gottman explains this emotional hijacking as the hallmark of our nervous system in overdrive. Something happens in your interaction with your partner that sets off your internal threat-detection system. This is your sympathetic nervous system in action, preparing you for battle or flight. In this state, you lose some of your capacity for rational thought. Science describes this is as a decrease of activity in your pre-frontal cortex, the center of higher cognition.

Fight or flight

What works well when you in the wild doesn’t work at home. Our instinctive reactions in these moments usually make the situation worse. The fight response becomes a cascade of angry words that deepen wounds. In flight, you might stalk out of the room or shut out your mate with icy silence. When you react in the grip of emotional flooding, you do and say things that are likely to trigger emotional flooding in your partner. then both people in the room are out of control.

How do you fight the flood? Below are some tactics to keep emotional flooding from derailing your conflict management.

Commit to self-soothe

The reality is that it is not easy to hold back from acting out when we are completely enraged or feeling utterly devastated. However, if you accept the idea that your perception is unreliable during flooding, you at least have a fighting chance of pulling yourself back. Some part of you will have registered the notion that you shouldn’t be quick to move into a blaming narrative or catastrophic rendering.

Picture your partner at their best

Picture a moment when you experience your partner as loving, generous, and well-meaning. Add as much detail as you can to capture how you experience your partner when you are feeling loved and cared for. This may be an image of your partner making you breakfast or your last favorite date night. Try shifting your focus to this image when trap yourself in a negative story. This helps your brain move out of reactive myopia and reintegrate a more balanced view of your partner.

Hit pause and turn inward

When you do get flooded, you need to hit the pause button on your interaction and turn your attention inward. This can look like taking a breath and reminding yourself that this moment will pass and you’ll be okay. Use gentle self-talk and reorient yourself to where this moment fits in the bigger picture of you and your partner as a couple

Take an extended time-out

Sometimes you can self-soothe or take a pause on the spot. At other times, you may need to take a break from the interaction. Make a plan with your partner that if either of you gets too activated in an argument, you will take a time-out. Agree to come back together to continue the discussion within a certain period of time, but don’t delay indefinitely. Use the time to actively soothe yourself rather than obsessing over your version of what went wrong, which will just keep you activated. Disengage with your reaction so you can re-engage with your mate.

And by all means, don’t get down on yourself when you do get tripped up and act out. That’s what “I’m sorry” is for.

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.

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Stephanie blends her experience as both lawyer and therapist to help individuals and couples meet the challenges of real life. She is an adjunct faculty member at Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology and the Training Institute for Mental Health, where she supervises students studying couples therapy.

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