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Emotional Flooding and What To Do About It.

What do combat vets, trauma survivors and chronically anxious or stressed people have in common?    Emotional Flooding.

 Are you caught in what feels like impossible situations?  Where no matter what you do, it's probably not going to turn out well?   This double bind causes emotional flooding.

It refers to a flooding of stress hormones which makes it very difficult to resolve conflict rationally.   As adrenalin and cortisol floods the nervous system, you will feel the ‘fight or flight' response.  Dr. John Gottman's research shows that when pulse rate of one member of a couple that is fighting goes up 15 or 20 percent, and probably would be better off to take a break and talk at another time.  Arguing while emotionally flooded causes people to react rather than respond.  They may  say and do things they do not mean leaving behind a pile of regrets in the wreckage. 

Gottman believes that that during a fight if one or both partners increase their pulse rate from a normal pulse rate of 74 to 85 to 90, they are flooded. The flooding indicates they are feeling threatened and their body acts just like the cave man did when faced with a saber toothed tiger acts impuslively. Once the arousal system becomes flooded, ready to fight , flee or freeze, it's nearly impossible to resolve hurt feelings.

WhaWhat is emotional flooding specifically? Gottman calls it "diffuse physiologial arousal  It is a Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) response to stress that was originally designed to alert us to danger and enables us to react quickly in self-defense.

1.      Diffuse:  many parts of the body are effected at one time.  It’s not a specific response, it is diffused through out many parts of the body

2.       Physiological:  of the body,  a physical phenomenon

3.       Arousal: stirring up of the neurological system, making ready for action

4.       When your heart beats 90 - 100 beats per minute, your body goes into red alert.  It then dumps adrenaline instantly into your blood stream.  And you react automatically in fight, flight or freeze mode.  Most people feel intense fear or anxiety or anger.

5.       Once the “red line” is hit, your body instantly releases adrenaline.  Adrenaline then increases your heart rate, increases respiration, increases sweat, slows digestion

6.       You get a feeling of “system over load, swamped by distress and upset.”

7.       Men are more physiologically prone than women to DPA

8.       Flooding is a “bio-chemical flood” preparing your body for action.  The chemicals in your body called neurotransmitters, must pass through the neural synapse, be absorbed into the tissues and passed into the urine before heart rate returns to normal.  This process takes 20 minutes.   You will need a 20 minute respite to completely calm down physiologically!  If the stressful situation remains, your heart rate will remain elevated, and your body will pump out adrenaline and your thinking will be clouded.  You will be physiologically reactive even if you "know" a different response is called for.  Most people think they are calm, long before they actually are physiologically calm.

9.    The threshold for DPA is different for each individual.  The more stress we have in our lives, the easier and faster it is to flood. 

10.    In early recovery, the DPA threshold is much lower – so we flood much easier, much quicker and the reaction is much stronger.

11.    DPA is NOT strong emotion alone!  For example if, if a loved one dies and you have powerful grief, your pulse may not go up.  You may not have a fight or flight response.  But if you have panic about showing emotion in public and feel you must hide in order to feel safe with grief, then you might flood:  grief + fear = flooding.

12.    Like a powerful river, when an emotion flows through the body, it stays in its channel and does not flood.

13.    Research has shown that the more physically fit, the more people are able to delay or prevent flooding.  For example, people who exercise to the point of a light sweat  3 – 5 times a week, will respond to stressful situations with more calmness, and take longer to flood.  People in poor health or a weakened condition flood easier and faster.

Why Should I Care about Flooding?

It causes a major shift in the way you see yourself and the world.  Your inner peace meter is always in the red zone.  It makes relationships very difficult.

The results of being in this constant state of “red alert” are:
  • We tend to catastrophize, everything appears dangerous, bad or wrong:  a taillight on the freeway means a multi-car collision is about to happen.  We have one thought of rejection and it feels like the relationship is over
  • Distorted and distressed thought patterns become the norm:  we miss-read people’s behaviors, seeing danger or loss or pain
  • We remain vigilant even in peaceful, stress free situations
  • We easily project our fears or judgements on to others and then act as if they are true:  Your SO comes home tired and you project that they don’t love you any more.  A probation office forgets to return a call, and you get angry and believe the whole system is against you..
  • Thinking errors crop up everywhere like weeds
  • We become easily triggered by subtle “data.”  This data can be internal triggers such as body sensations, emotions and thoughts.  Or the trigger can be something we notice outside ourselves, such as the way a bank teller looks at us, the phone rings late at night, some one gives us an unexpected compliment, if our plans change. .

Examples of Chronic Flooding

  • PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an example of chronic flooding.
  • Many veterans who served in active duty suffer from chronic flooding, aka PTSD
  • Adults abused or neglected as children  suffer from chronic flooding
  • The early stages of recovery typically have a lot of flooding since the nervous system has been broken down by drug and alcohol use.  As the body repairs this damage, emotional sensitivity, mental confusion and fatigue are normal.

What causes flooding?

DPA occurs when we have two difficult emotions that result in feeling powerless.  Examples:

  • You have a deadline to meet, and you tell yourself you don’t have the information you need to do the job:  frustration + helpless = flooding
  • A loved one is angry with you, and talks and talks and talks.  Even if they are not attacking you, you  tell yourself you will never have a chance to respond:  anger +  trapped feeling = flooding
  • You remember all the times you told your daughter that you’d watch her soccer game and you didn’t because you drank, and you tell yourself you’re a rotten parent:  remorse + guilt + self hate = flooding

Symptoms of Emotional Flooding

1.    Pulse increases, usually over 80 beats per minute for men and 90 bpm for women.  The heart beat feels harder.

2.    The breath moves up into upper chest, feels difficult to breath, more rapid, shallow breath

3.    Stomach feels tight

4.    Controlled facial expression, chin  muscle tightens, jaw can feel set

5.    Tongue rises to the top of the mouth

6.    Voice register changes from chest to head

D.      Subtle behaviors

1.    Long eye closure

2.    Fluttering eyelids

3.    Arms akimbo

4.    Turn body away, hips swivel

5.    No sense of humor

6.    Biting inside of cheek

7.    Touch face and lips often

8.    Away behaviors: humming, looking away, sense of needing  to go, urgent business elsewhere

9Stuttering, speech disturbance

E.       Emotional effects

1.    It makes empathy very very difficult

2.    It makes sympathy very very easy

F.       Mental effects

1.    Thinking becomes more difficult

2.    Tunnel vision

3.    Desire to fight, freeze or run

4.    We become blind to alternative solutions, creative problem solving becomes difficult

II.     Dealing with Flooding

A.      How to make it Worse!

1.       Use drugs or alcohol to deal with the overwhelming feelings!!!

2.       Dwell on negative, fear based thoughts!

3.       Stop paying attention to your body, go numb!

4.       React with the first thing your mind tells you to do!

B.      How to make it better  -- OR--  How to activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System

1.       Breathe deeply and slowly into the belly

2.       Breathe in to the count of 7, exhale to the count of 11.

3.       Let your  body feel heavy

4.       Feel your feet

5.       Watch thoughts rather than react to them.  “Don’t believe everything you think!”

6.       In response to fear or anger thoughts, ask simply “Is it true?”

7.       Imagine tense parts of your body feeling warmed by the sun.

8.       Take a break.  Let people know that you are flooding and need 20 minutes to calm down

9.       Exercise!  Go for a walk, work out, garden . . . whatever it takes to get the blood moving.

10.    Find one thing about the situation that will some day be amusing.

C.      How to help others in DPA: Practice active listening and empathy.  You can say things like:

1.       “I can understand the way you feel . . .”

2.       “What you’re saying makes a lot of sense.  I can see why you’d feel . . .”

3.       “I’d like to hear more about this. . . .”

4.       Call for a 20-minute time out.  Agree when and where you will resume the discussion


Why Marriages Succeed and Fail by John Gottman PhD

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