We’ve all had the feeling - you and your partner are fighting and suddenly you’re feelings “take over” so that you can barely speak, let alone listen. Therapists call this "feeling flooded." When you're flooded,you might notice your heart racing, a ringing in your ears, sweat, muscle tension or your face flushing. Feeling flooded may express itself anger, anxiety, embarrassment, guilt or a combination. When you’re flooded, the intensity of your feelings take over and you get stuck in the fight, unable to listen to your partner or engage in conversation. Being flooded happens to everyone at one point or another, and is deeply connected to the fight or flight instinct in all of us. In any relationship it’s normal to fight - you are two different people after all, and your opinions and values will reflect that at least occasionally. What’s important isn’t avoiding fights but learning to self-soothe so that you you can disagree and still feel loved and supported by one another.
When you’re flooded (by anger, anxiety, embarrassment or guilt), your body kicks into fight or flight mode. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, you may develop tunnel vision, and as your brain prepares for the worst, it literally stops communicating with your frontal cortex where logic and memory are stored. No wonder it’s hard to listen! To avoid getting flooded during fights, follow this three step process.
Step 1: Establish a baseline
Pick a time of day when you feel calmest - maybe right after waking up or after taking a long hot shower. Place two fingers on your inner wrist, the side of your neck, or above your left pectoral to locate your heartbeat. Once you’ve found it, set a timer for 60 seconds and count the number of pulses. This is your resting heart rate.
Step 2: Learn the signs of flooding
Take out a piece of paper and label it 1 to 10.
Level 10: Extreme Anger
Think back to the angriest you’ve ever been. As you remember that moment, focus on how it felt. How was your heart rate? Your breathing? Did your body temperature or perception of temperature change? Did any of your muscles tense up? Your shoulders, neck, fists or jaw? Did your vision change? Did your face flush? Did your hearing change? Write down all of these sensations next to 10.
Level 1: Extreme Calm
Think back to a time you’ve felt really, really relaxed. As you remember that moment, take the same body inventory. How was your heart rate? Your breathing? How did your muscles feel? What was your body temperature? How do you speak when you’re feeling calm? What does your face look like? Write down all of these details next to 1.
Level 5: Irritation
Think about where your level of anger is between a 10:most angry, and 1: most calm. For some people that feeling is “irritation”, but it’s different for everyone. Write your feeling next to the 5, and think of a time you’ve felt that way. Complete that same body inventory, taking into account heartrate, breath, muscle tension, body temperature, facial expression and the way you talk. Write down these details next to 5.
Fill in the rest of the chart. If you get stuck, try to find a specific moment or memory that correlates and work from there.
This chart will be your guide. Use the information on it to pay attention for when you “move” up and down the scale.
Step 3: See Flooding in Action
The next time you notice yourself getting flooded, even at only a level 5, take inventory. What is your heart doing? Your breath? Your body temperature? Your vision? Where do you fall on the 10 point scale you made? You may notice that the farther up the scale you go, the harder it is to calm down
Now that you can recognize signs that you’re flooded, can you extend your awareness to the warning signs? Ask your partner if they recognize warning signs and can share them with you in a non-judgmental way
Film the next disagreement you and your partner have. After you’ve self-soothed, watch the video on your own to see if you can identify warning signs based on your body language, tone of voice or facial expression.
The more often you practice noticing your body during anger, the earlier you will be able to catch the warning signs. Many people don’t notice flooding feelings like anger or anxiety until they’re all the way up at a 9 or 10, and too late to really do anything about. By tuning in and catching yourself at a 5 or 6, you’ll make it possible to bring the conversation to a break or a resolution before things get out of control. If you need help with self-soothing, try other exercises on our website, or make an appointment with a couples therapist today. Feel free to call The Center for Growth / Sex Therapy in Philadelphia to talk with a therapist today.