Conflict happens in all relationships.
However, sometimes a conflict becomes ‘too much’ for us and we can no longer contain our feelings and sustain dialogue.
If you and your partner find yourself in a disagreement that is escalating and one or both of you feel your emotions and reactivity are getting out-of-control, take a break. Learning to take breaks and self-soothe when psychological flooding is taking over, is a skill all couples can and should learn.
Psychological flooding occurs when you become overwhelmed by the emotions aroused through the conflict with your partner – a condition that experts call diffuse physiological arousal or DPA. DPA causes a sudden elevated stress response, with all the usual physiological symptoms like shallow breathing, fast heart rate, sweating, trembling, and even heart palpitations and dizziness.
During DPA, our cognitive abilities decline, you can’t focus on words and abstract concepts, and your memory may even be affected. All you can feel is an overwhelming emotion, usually some form of fear, ‘flooding’ your entire system. It is like an otherwise well-regulated river breaching its banks and flooding the entire city.
This is not a good state of mind to engage in any complex argument, nor is it the ideal way to engage with your partner and the conflict at hand.
The first step of self-soothing is to notice and acknowledge that you are overwhelmed (‘flooded’). Check in with yourself and ask how stressed you feel on a scale of 1 to 10. Or, take your pulse rate. If your pulse is higher than 100 beats per minute (or 80 bpm, if you are an athlete), you are in a state of DPA and it's time to calm yourself.
If you find yourself in a state of DPA, take some time away from the conflict. Just a few minutes in a different room by yourself can make a huge difference. Your fight or flight response will decrease, and you will slowly regain all of your cognitive abilities.
According to experts, it takes around 20 to 30 minutes for our minds and bodies to calm.
During your break from the conflict, use breathing techniques, such as the 5-5-7 system. Breathe in for 5 counts, hold your breath for 5 counts, and exhale for 7 counts to slow down your breathing and begin to bring yourself to a calmer emotional place.
Another technique to bring yourself to a less stressed state, is to imagine a place in your mind where you feel safe, relaxed, and nurtured. Perhaps it's a memory of a pleasant experience, or a place you want to visit. Whatever the image, imagine a place far away from the present situation. Focus on the details of the imagery of the safe place - the colors, the sounds, the smells - any sensory images that you can recall or imagine.
Movement and exercise also help self-soothe and reduce your stress levels. If you can, go for a brief walk, put on music and dance your troubles away, engage in a short yoga session which also includes breathing exercises, cuddle and pet your dog, or grab an adult coloring book (or a sketch pad) and colored pencils that you might have on hand.
Actively try to disengage from the stressful conflict. Use this break to be intentional about thinking of something other than the conflict you have been having with your partner. You can resolve the issues later. Be there for yourself. Treat yourself like a caring friend or a loving parent. This is time for you to calm down and bring your emotions and your logic and reason back into balance.
Communicating flooding to your partner
If the conflict escalates to high stress levels, both partners can experience flooding and may need a time out to self-soothe.
However, if you feel flooded, don’t wait for your partner to reach the same level or become aware of their own stress before saying you need a break.
Have an agreement with your partner on the best way to communicate that you feel flooded BEFORE a conflict. Briefly state your feelings and explain that you will need a short break away to self-soothe. Agree to a time that you will come back together to continue your discussion. The agreement to take a break must be honored by both of you for the break to effective.
When flooding happens, remind your partner of the agreement and retreat to another room or step outside immediately. Use self-soothing methods before you and your partner resume your conversation.
Taking a break is not the end of it
Here is an important piece that must happen for self-soothing breaks and improved conflict discussions to work. Taking a break to self-soothe does not mean that it's OK to abandon the conflict and your partner altogether. You can't leave the discussion and not return to it.
Self-soothing breaks or time-outs are essential responses to psychological flooding. Take time to get yourself into a frame of mind where you can continue to process the conflict. Relationship conflicts still have to be worked through.
If you find that you have become so flooded that you can no longer tolerate any kind of conflict, it’s time to seek the help of a professional counselor who can help you and your partner productively manage conflict and communication in your relationship.
Causes of flooding
Flooding may be triggered by your own issues or by your partner’s behavior, but the underlying causes of your response often lies in your individual past. It's important for each partner to have individual self-awareness around what causes emotional and reactive responses during conflict.
Distancer/pursuer roles in relationships
Flooding occurs differently in different people and one partner may be more easily overwhelmed by negative emotions. It may take this partner longer to "come down" after heightened DPA. Perhaps they are less familiar with self-soothing methods, and may even feel that they should ‘tough it out" and continue interacting with their partner.
The other partner may be so flooded that they withdraw entirely from the discussion.
These patterns can feed into ‘distancer’ and ‘pursuer’ roles in relationships. One partner continuously avoids contact and the other partner constantly seeks it out. In this pattern, the distancer uses time-outs to deny the partner any conflict resolution, while the pursuer cannot accept that the distancer needs a break.
If this is more than a temporary situation and the roles have become fixed in your relationship, you urgently need to do something about it. Fixed distance/pursuer roles create a toxic relationship.
The basis for a good relationship, and even more so, a good way of processing inevitable conflicts, is to first understand yourself. Do whatever you need to self-soothe so that you can engage in healthy dialogue and grow together with your partner.