Posted January 11, 2019 – [As printed in The Women’s Lifestyle Magazine of Greater Kalamazoo, February 2015 Edition]; article from guest blogger Stacy McDonald.
It’s Friday evening after a long week of work, housework, errands, appointments, and bills. A conversation begins with your partner about finances. A comment is made that sends you into immediate defense mode and you then retaliate by saying something less-than-loving. You then immediately begin to feel your heart beat faster, your face get warm, your muscles get tense, and your breathing gets faster and more shallow. You know the explosion is coming and it gets harder and harder to hold it back.
Dr. John Gottman, world-renowned for his 40 plus years of research and work on marital stability and divorce prediction, has termed this diffuse physiological arousal (DPA) as “flooding.” Dr. Gottman and his colleague Robert Levenson researched couples and measured what was happening to them physically when they were in a heated, intense conflict discussion. Their findings indicate that the biggest predictor of flooding is a heart rate above 100 bpm (80 if athletic). If one or both partners is in this flooding stage, the ability to speak in a loving way, listen, think clearly, access empathy, and retain information is restricted.
There are several ways to tell if you or your partner is feeling flooded. When any of the following examples begin to occur during a conversation, Dr. Gottman recommends partners check their heart rate and begin to self-soothe or help in soothing their partner:
- Periods of long eye closures or eyelid flutters
- Hips swiveled away from partner
- No positive affect
- Lips pursed, eyes squint, hand are raised to face
- Inner corners of brows are drawn up together
- Voice gets higher and louder
- Shallow breathing
- Stuttering, repetitions, and not finishing sentences
When couples have concluded that flooding is occurring, they can take steps (such as those below) to relax and regroup. By taking a break and calming down, they can regain a more natural and relaxed physiological state thereby leading to a more loving and productive conversation. The following can be useful in combating flooding:
- Get control of breathing by taking long, slow deep breaths.
- Meditate or use a guided visualization (you can find these on YouTube under guided visualizations)
- Take a short walk
- Brush or stroke a pet
- Take a bath/shower
- Read a magazine
- Write in a journal
- Listen to music
Through Dr. Gottman’s research it has been well documented that a minimum of 20 minutes is the amount of time to return to a relaxed physiological state. It is important to communicate to your partner that you’d like to begin the conversation again after the allotted time. This encourages healthy communication and sends a message to your partner that he/she is important and deserving of a conversation that is respectful and considerate. The relationships in your life are important and need positive, healthy, and calm communication in order to nurture and strengthen them. You have a better opportunity at being heard and understood if you can remain physiologically relaxed. Remember, a heart rate of 100 bpm (80 if athletic) is often the first indicator of physiological flooding, even before the other flooding predictors start occurring, so listen to your heart…it has a lot to say.
~Stacy McDonald, LMFT
Stacy McDonald is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who is a guest blogger this month for Inner Peace Counseling, PLC.
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