Building Healthy Relationships, Part 2

Conflict in relationships is inevitable – the question is, how do you handle it successfully? Last week, we covered the four major barriers to successful communication. This week, CAPS case manager Edward Olvera tackles the tricky problem of Emotional Flooding.

Fueling Relationship Conflict: Emotional Flooding

by Edward Olvera, LMFT

Flooding is a natural response to feeling threatened. Whether we’re actually in physical danger or responding to our partners’ criticism, our bodies act just like the Neanderthal did when faced with a saber toothed tiger. Once the arousal system (aka the Sympathetic Nervous System) becomes flooded, ready to fight, flee or freeze, it’s nearly impossible to resolve hurt feelings. We can act impulsively. Stress hormones compromise our ability to resolve conflict. As adrenalin and cortisol flood the nervous system, we feel the ‘fight or flight’ response. When emotional flooding takes hold it makes empathy very difficult, and thinking becomes more difficult. We can be consumed with tunnel vision and become blind to alternative solutions and creative problem solving.   

Antidotes to flooding involve activating the relaxation response (or Parasympathetic Nervous System). Now is the time for deep and slow belly breathing; watching or listening to your thoughts rather than reacting, and then questioning or challenging your assumptions. Taking a break for exercise is a great choice for calming yourself, your physiology down. Finding an amusing distraction can help break the ‘spell’. Make a commitment to self-soothe when you find yourself caught up in heavy emotions. Draw upon memories of your partner at their best — a moment when you experience them as loving, generous and well-meaning. Take timeouts when you need to. Sometimes you cannot self-soothe on the spot. This is the time to take a break from the interaction.

Stay tuned for the final installment next week, when Edward addresses ways to build up your relationship’s “emotional bank account.”