What Is Emotional Flooding?4 Min Read
The Hormonal Reason Why You React to Upsetting Things in Your Relationship
If your partner ever told you that they didn’t talk to their ex, you might be surprised to see that ex’s name flash in a text notification on your partner’s phone screen. The possibilities could be endless. But one text is one text — and if there’s no evidence of a sustained conversation or cheating, what do you do?
It would be common to feel anxiety or betrayal, as it may be proof that they’re dishonest (Of course, it’s worth holding space for the possibility that your partner did tell the truth, and the ex reached out on their own.) However, some people might experience physiological arousal.
This reaction is called “emotional flooding,” and it occurs when a sudden influx of emotionally-charged hormones alter your physiological state. This can cause changes in your blood pressure, heart rate, sweat output, and overall adrenaline, John Gottman and Nan Silver note in “ What Makes Love Last?: How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal. In other words, extreme emotions can cause a “fight-or-flight” response.
While this response might make sense if you unexpectedly encounter a bear while camping, it is less useful for relationship-related conflict. When you experience emotional flooding, you use less of your thinking brain and rely instead on the impulsive, reactive side of your brain. This means your response may be more rash than rational.
In the fight scenario, you may lash out at your partner for the text, blaming them and trying to inflict emotional wounds to even the score. In the flight scenario, you might avoid the conflict entirely by icing out your partner — this often introduces a new, unexplained tension into the relationship. This “stonewalling” may start as an attempt to manage emotional flooding, but Gottman and Silver explain that it actually hobbles you because it makes it harder to assess a situation empathetically.
Clearly, neither option gives your partner the chance to explain themselves — and neither response really resolves a given conflict. Emotional flooding can also be linked to acts of domestic violence. One study found that 80 percent of acts of domestic violence stem from a need to find a release from this heightened physiological state (2). * And if emotional flooding is a source of domestic violence in your relationship, it’s important to seek help, and in a way that feels safe to you. You can contact the United States Domestic Violence hotline for free at 800.799.SAFE (7233).
How Can You Manage Emotional Flooding?
While you can’t necessarily stop emotional flooding from occurring, it’s possible to recognize and manage these extreme emotions when they arise. Here are a few ways:
Recognize that it is happening.
As easy as it sounds, it can sometimes be difficult to take a step back and assess the way emotions and hormones could be influencing your reaction. If you feel physiologically aroused, and are having trouble listening to or feeling empathy for your partner, you may be experiencing emotional flooding.
Realize that emotional flooding can look different for different people.
Women tend to be triggered by powerlessness, injustice, and irresponsibility, while men can be triggered by a wide range of things and might struggle most when it comes to managing emotional flooding, Gottman and Julia Schwartz Gottman note in “The Man's Guide to Women: Scientifically Proven Secrets From the ‘Love Lab’ About What Women Really Want.” Studies have shown that men must first reduce their heart rate before they are able to work towards a resolution (2).
Use decompression techniques.
Since emotional flooding is largely hormonal, there are ways you can dissipate the response by altering your physiological and mental state. Taking deep breaths and counting to ten before responding can both help. If you still feel aroused, you can find a quiet, solitary space for 20 to 30 minutes, and try to take your mind off of the conflict by allowing your body to come back to a resting state. Ideally, you’ll be able to return to your partner with a clearer mind, and hopefully come to a resolution.
If you or someone you know struggles with emotional flooding...
therapists are well-trained to work through these scenarios. Seeking help is always a positive thing — it means that you are trying to grow and improve the relationship.
Just like in the text-from-the-ex scenario, emotional flooding is sometimes inevitable, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing — it means you care. It’s how you react to the arousal that can be helpful or harmful, and recognizing and managing these impulsive responses is key to working through conflict with your partner.
1. Gottman, John, & Silver, Nan. What Makes Love Last?: How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal. Simon & Schuster, 20132.
2. Gottman, John, & Schwartz Gottman, Julia. The Man's Guide to Women: Scientifically Proven Secrets From the ‘Love Lab’ About What Women Really Want