Are You Flooding? SEPARATE
by Jim and Jeanne Caverly

Have you ever gotten into a heated discussion with your partner (or anyone else, for that matter) and suddenly
— your pulse is racing,
— your heart is thumping,
— your blood pressure is rising,
— your face is flushing,
— your muscles are tensing,
— your sweat glands are working overtime, and
— you feel like you are physically going to explode?

If you can identify with this scenario, then you have experienced the very unpleasant sensation of “flooding,” a term coined by Dr. John Gottman after thirty years of marital research in the LoveLab at the University of Washington, Seattle. These symptoms make it almost impossible for the flooded partner to focus on what the other partner is saying, think logically, and react rationally. The negative physiological reactions of flooding lead to more anxiety and more negative thoughts and emotions which lead to increased flooding. The discussion then escalates out of control with no hope for resolution.

During interactions between male and female partners, men usually flood more often and more quickly than women. Interestingly, there are good reasons why men and women have different physiological reactions to stressful stimuli. Any nursing Mom can tell you what happens if she becomes tense, anxious or “flooded”— her infant child has difficulty nursing and her milk supply will decrease or dry up. From earliest times, to preserve the species without the convenience of canned formula, women had to stay physiologically calm. The earliest males, on the other hand, as the hunters and providers, had to be vigilant and ready at a moment’s notice to protect themselves and to kill their prey in order to provide food for the clan. From earliest times, to preserve the species without the luxury of supermarkets, men needed the energy to “fight or flee,” to react instantly, not only to perform their mission successfully, but also to stay alive!

Our bodies were initially made to react this way for very good reason. And under some circumstances, the fight or flight response is still necessary to keep us safe from harm. However, most of the time in modern society, our bodies flood in response to situations that are not life-threatening. Most of the time, we don’t need the extra adrenaline rush to fuel a fight or flight response.

According to Gottman, the flooding process begins for the average man or woman when his/her resting pulse increases by 10%. In most cases, the husband’s blood pressure and heart rate will rise much higher and stay elevated longer than the wife’s. It also takes less intense negativity for men to become physiologically overwhelmed or flooded. However, for either sex, if the heart rate skyrockets to 100 BPM, (beats per minute) adrenaline is secreted in such large doses that it triggers a ‘fight or flight’ stress reaction coupled with intense fear or anxiety. At this point, it is absolutely critical to take a “time-out” or SEPARATE yourself from the situation which is causing your body to experience these very unpleasant sensations.

For time-outs to be most effective, there are some basic rules to follow which can be summed up with the acronym SEPARATE.

S: Signal. Have a pre-arranged signal—a gesture or statement—denoting the need for a time-out; e.g. clamp your hand over your mouth and then say “I’m feeling overwhelmed. I need a time-out. Let’s come back to this in about an hour.”

E: Exit calmly and quietly. Leave the presence of the other person immediately and stay apart for at least thirty minutes.

P: Physical activity. Walk, run, ride a bike, lift weights or do other physical activity to release your body’s pent-up energy. Do not drive. Do not use alcohol or other drugs.

A: Analyze what just happened to FIND: your Feelings, the Issue, your Needs and Desires (and what you think your partner’s desires are regarding this situation). Write about your FIND in your journal.

R: Relax. Use relaxation techniques to soothe yourself— breathe deeply, meditate, pray—do what works for you..

A: Affirm. Affirm yourself and your marriage with positive self-talk. “I’m okay. We can solve this problem. I will be peaceful. I have choices. I choose to stay calm. I’m a good person. We’re going to figure this out. Calm down. Breathe. He (she) is upset right now—this isn’t a personal attack. I’m upset now; I do love him (her). There are lots of things I admire about him (her).” Avoid negative self-talk about yourself or your partner. Negativity escalates tension.

T: Take your pulse. It takes 20 - 30 minutes for an elevated pulse to return to normal. Most people think they are calmed down when their pulse is still 10% above their normal resting rate. To increase the chance of a tranquil re-engagement with your partner after a time-out, take your pulse and wait until you are both feeling “normal.”

E: Engage. Come back together with your partner. Schedule time to again discuss the topic that precipitated the flooding. Agree to discuss the topic again only after you have first experienced a period of normal time together. If it is a particularly volatile or difficult topic, Gottman suggests limiting the discussion to 15 minutes at a time, adding additional 15-minute segments as needed. If you engage too soon, SEPARATE.

Time-outs won’t solve your problems, but they can keep potentially volatile discussions from escalating out of control. Time-outs will only work if both partners abide by the rules and agree to discuss the topic at a specified time in the near future. Avoiding “hot topics” to prevent flooding will ultimately cause more problems. Sometimes you just need to agree to disagree. Not every issue can be resolved, nor do all issues need to be resolved in order to be happy. It’s not whether you argue, it’s how you argue that matters most!

Whether we need it or not, our ability to flood is a physiological fact. We need to be aware of it, understand it, and know how to prevent or minimize it. The fact is you can’t communicate rationally when your blood pressure (or your partner’s) is skyrocketing out of control.

Before I understood this concept of flooding (which I learned about 25 years too late!), I would continue to pursue Jim when he was obviously upset (flooded). I would insist on resolving the issue. I saw his attempts to get away from me in order to calm down as his way of ignoring issues and me. The more I pursued, the more heated the discussion became until resolution of the issue was completely out of the picture. To feel better and decrease the unpleasant physical sensations of flooding, Jim would “stonewall” or detach and stay away from me. We would both feel hurt and isolated and would rarely return to rationally discuss an issue for fear the whole cycle would start all over again.

If this all sounds too familiar, there is good news! Jim and I are learning to begin our discussions with kind, gentle words (which Gottman calls the “soft start-up”) and to SEPARATE when we need a time-out. We were married in 1972 and we’re still learning! You can, too! It really works! And it is definitely worth the effort!

Journal Reflections:

What is my reaction when I am trying to discuss an important issue with someone who is beginning to flood?

What do I do if that person tries to avoid the issue or tries to get away from me in order to calm down?

Discuss the SEPARATE technique with your partner. Choose a mutually agreeable signal to designate the need for a time-out.

Determine your DHR (Discussion Heart Rate): DHR = Resting Pulse +10% of Resting Pulse. (For maximum effectiveness, you should not exceed your DHR during discussions.)

Monitor your pulse during discussions and watch for any signs of “flooding.” When your pulse approaches your DHR, SEPARATE. In your journal, keep track of the date, the topic, who called the time-out, and how the discussion was ultimately resolve

Copyright: Crisis Options. Permission granted to copy this material for educational purposes with the following source acknowledgement:
Source: Crisis Options. 518-399-1727.

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