What is flooding? It’s a sensation of feeling psychologically and physically overwhelmed. When your partner’s words or actions seem so intense that you feel completely defenseless against further attack, you either emotionally disengage in an effort to reduce or avoid the intensity of your feelings, or you escalate the intensity of your response.
The perceived threat from your partner is indistinguishable from the threat of a saber-toothed tiger. Our bodies are finely tuned to be ready to ward off an attack, and they are not very good at distinguishing subtleties. We know from the work of physiologist Loring Rowell that if your heart rate goes above 100 BPM, and you’re not exercising, that your body is releasing the stress hormones of cortisol and adrenaline. When this is occurring, it’s nearly impossible to think creatively or access your problem-solving skills and sense of humor. At this point, you are in fight, flight, or freeze mode and you are physiologically overwhelmed. This is the time to take a break, and get some space so that you can calm down and get your brain back on line.
Flooding leads people to become so overwhelmed that they reject incoming information. Being soothed leads to the ability to take in information.
The Nature of a Good Break
1. It must be at least twenty minutes long. Why? Because the major sympathetic neurotransmitter norepinephrine doesn’t have an enzyme to degrade it, so it needs time to allow for it to be metabolized through the bloodstream. This process takes 20 minutes or more in the cardiovascular system.
2. It cannot involve thinking “distress maintaining” thoughts such as, “I don’t have to take this,” or, “I’m going to get even.”
3. It must involve a truly relaxing activity, such as listening to calming music or taking a walk around the block. Everyone is different: your idea of relaxation may be reading a fiction book, but someone else may be better off doing yoga or tinkering with their bicycle.
Some people may need longer than 20 minutes. It can be up to 24 hours if that is how long it takes to truly calm down. Let your partner know when you think you will be ready to talk and never go more than 24 hours.
Clarifying that you need a break and then coming back when you’ve calmed down, at an agreed upon time, will reassure the other person that you are trying to work through the issue rather than avoid it. The above steps also help avoid the abandonment trigger that can exist for some people when their partner storms out and there is no clarity on what the plan is or when they will be back. Agree upon a term or a hand signal (like the T shape time out signal, or a peace sign).
It is important that if one person asks for a break that it is honored. You don’t have to justify it either, so even if you think your partner is getting flooded but you are not- you can still ask for a break. Be sure to say ‘let’s take a break’ rather than saying ‘you’re flooded’ or ‘you need a break’. In the moment when your partner really is flooded that will sound like an attack and it will escalate things. Remember to take your break in a separate space from your partner (out of hearing and sight range).