Emotional Flooding: When Arguments Get Out of Control

Conflicts in relationships are normal, but sometimes we get emotionally flooded and the arguments escalate to the point of feeling out of control. When this happens, disagreements can turn into shouting matches, hurtful words are exchanged and sometimes the argument can turn physical.

When emotional flooding occurs during conflicts in relationships, it can significantly impact the dynamics and outcomes of the interaction. Some common effects of emotional flooding in relationship conflicts include:

1. Communication Breakdown: When flooded, it becomes difficult to express oneself clearly, listen actively to the other person’s perspective, and engage in productive dialogue. Instead, communication may become heated, defensive, or escalate into shouting matches, making it challenging to resolve the conflict

2. Heightened Emotional Intensity: Emotional flooding intensifies the emotions experienced during the conflict. It can lead to a heightened sense of anger, frustration, hurt, or fear. These intensified emotions may make it challenging to approach the conflict with a calm and rational mindset, potentially fuelling further escalation.

3. Negative Interaction Patterns: Emotional flooding can reinforce negative interaction patterns within the relationship. When flooded, individuals may resort to defensive behaviours such as criticism, blaming, or stonewalling, which can further contribute to a cycle of conflict and disconnection.

4. Emotional Distance: Emotional flooding can create emotional distance between partners. When flooded, individuals may withdraw or shut down emotionally as a way to cope with the overwhelming emotions. This withdrawal can lead to a lack of emotional connection and hinder the resolution of the conflict.

5. Impact on Relationship Satisfaction: Persistent emotional flooding in conflicts can erode overall relationship satisfaction. If conflicts repeatedly result in emotional flooding without effective resolution, it can create a negative atmosphere and erode the emotional bond between partners.

Dr. John Gottman of The Gottman Institute is a renowned psychologist and relationship expert known for extensive research on marriage and couples’ dynamics. He has written about the concept of emotional flooding, which refers to a state of being overwhelmed by intense emotions, particularly during conflicts or stressful situations. When someone is flooded, their ability to think clearly and communicate effectively is impaired.

According to Dr. Gottman, emotional flooding triggers the body’s natural “fight-or-flight” response, leading to physiological changes such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and elevated blood pressure. In this state, the rational part of the brain, responsible for problem-solving and logical thinking, is inhibited, while the more primitive parts of the brain associated with survival and instinct take over.

To self-soothe when experiencing emotional flooding, the following strategies can be employed:

1. Take a break: Recognize when you’re feeling overwhelmed and take a break from the situation if possible. Physically remove yourself from the triggering environment to allow your body and mind to calm down. Dr Gottman recommends that couples take a minimum of 20 minutes to calm down and a maximum of 24 hours before returning to the discussion. This should be communicated to each other and a time to revisit the discussion agreed upon to prevent feelings of abandonment. 

2. Practice deep breathing: Engage in deep, slow breathing to activate the body’s relaxation response. Breathe in slowly through your nose, hold your breath for a few seconds, and exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat this several times to help regulate your breathing and reduce stress. To lower your heart rate, we recommend practicing a 4 beats in and 6 beats out breathing pattern.

3. Use positive self-talk: Employ positive affirmations or self-talk to counteract negative thoughts or catastrophic thinking patterns. Remind yourself that you can handle difficult emotions and that the flooding will pass.

4. Engage in calming activities: Find activities that help you relax and shift your focus away from the overwhelming emotions. This may include listening to calming music, practising mindfulness or meditation, taking a walk in nature, or engaging in a hobby you enjoy.

5. Seek support: Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or therapist who can provide empathy, understanding, and guidance during moments of emotional flooding. Sharing your feelings with someone supportive can help alleviate the intensity of the emotions.

Remember, self-soothing techniques may vary from person to person, so it’s important to explore and find what works best for you. Developing self-awareness and practising these strategies over time can help you manage emotional flooding more effectively. If emotional flooding becomes a persistent challenge for you, seeking professional guidance from a therapist or counsellor could be beneficial.

At Momentum Counselling, we work with couples to establish healthier communication strategies, conflict repair, mindfulness and self-soothing to end toxic cycles of emotional flooding within conflict.