Emotion Regulation

Flooding: The State That Ruins Relationships

Do you lose your temper often only to say or do things you regret?

Posted Apr 28, 2020

cottonbro/Pexels
Source: cottonbro/Pexels

We've all been there. One moment you are fine, but then someone or something triggers you. You “lose your mind” and can’t control yourself. You are “flooded.” You find yourself yelling at your partner, giving disproportionate punishment to your kids, slamming doors, threatening to quit your job, and spiraling downwards.

Several minutes or hours later, you calm down and realize, with regret, the damage that you have done.

During the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, anxiety, uncertainty, and conflicts are especially increased in relationships. These conditions make emotional “flooding” more common and harder to control than in other, more normal times.

The good news is that you can help minimize such flooding. The first step to minimizing flooding is to understand how our brain is hardwired.

A (very) brief overview of our brain

We have three parts of the brain that usually work in perfect synchronization.

  • The lower brain/brain stem. The part of our brain that is responsible for survival—controlling our heartbeat, breathing, and other autonomic functions.
  • The mid/limbic brain. This part is connected to emotional processing, learning, and motivation.
  • The forebrain/prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for the regulation of executive functioning logic, creativity, problem solving, language, perspective. It integrates right and left hemispheres and information from our senses.

Survival mind state

The human brain evolved with what is called survival mind state. This is essentially an involuntary reflex that is activated in times of perceived danger and includes several immediate physiological reactions:

  • The sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) becomes activated. Blood is directed away from the organs not necessary to immediate survival and there is an increase in blood flow to those organs involved in intense physical activity, such as your heart and limbs. All these immediate reactions make an immediate escape or confronting any imminent threat possible.
  • Your prefrontal cortex functioning is diminished, so you have less ability to reflect, contemplate, or use logic. You waste no time on analyzing and philosophizing about your situation; you are in action mode.
  • Contagion. Survival mind state is highly contagious. Whenever a person enters that state, then whoever is close to them may immediately also move into this mode. From an evolutionary perspective, this contagion helped groups of people to react immediately to danger.

What is the other state of mind?

Engaged mind state is the physiological state where our frontal brain is working and our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest response) is functioning. This state is also contagious, helping not only us to relax but also those around us.

The best way we can improve our relationships, is by minimizing our survival mind state and maximizing our engaged mind state with our loved ones.

How can you move from a flooded mind to an engaged mind state?

There are several ways to make this move:

1. Prevention

  • Take care of your physical needs. You can lower the chance of flooding with proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep. We often flood when were simply hungry, tired, or stressed.
  • Protect your personal space. Make sure your personal space isn’t always invaded. People crossing your boundary can add anxiety.
  • Know your symptoms. The more you can recognize the early manifestations of flooding, the easier it will be for you to prevent the escalation of the situation. For example, for some, it is experienced as tunnel vision, red flashes, dry mouth or clenched jaw.

2. Communicating

If you can learn to recognize your early symptoms, you will be able to let your partner know you’re starting to flood. In the beginning, you’ll only be able to report this retroactively, but, with time, you will be able to simply say “I'm getting flooded, I’m losing my upstairs brain.”

3. How to get out of the flooded state:

There are several ways to reactivate your prefrontal cortex and sympathetic system.

  • Time out. Some research suggests taking a 20-minute time out when possible. Ask your partner for a time out and indicate when the time out will be over. Don’t avoid your partner; take ownership of your mental state and commit to when you will come back. If you are still too flooded to return to your deadline, then give yourself an extension.
  • Drink. Drinking water invigorates your whole brain. 
  • Eat. Eating something can help you calm down, activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Since mental flooding often occurs when you are “hangry” (hungry + angry), eating can help you calm down.
  • Move. Moving your body “breaks” your mental state, stimulates new muscles, and signals to your body that you are not in any real danger.
  • Breathe. Take deep abdominal breaths, with extra-long exhales. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and signals to your brain that you are not under attack.
  • Laugh and play. Humor requires imagination and taking yourself lightly. Such a perspective requires the use of your prefrontal cortex. Remember that play is the lubricant of life and cannot flourish when you are in flooded mode. You can only laugh at yourself and the peculiarities of life when you are in engaged mind state.

It is important to realize that flooded states will pass, but the impact of flooded, survival-focused (re)actions and words last much longer. With time, you can become more conscious of your physiological reactions to different triggers, which will help you master your mind states. Even when you start being flooded, you can choose to use your upstairs brain and leap through hundreds of years of brain evolution toward engaged mind state.

After all, it's all in your mind.

References

Barrett, M. J., & Fish, L. S. (2014). Treating complex trauma: A relational blueprint for collaboration and change. New York, NY: Routledge.

Geller, S. M. (2017). A practical guide to cultivating therapeutic presence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). No-drama discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child's developing mind. NewYork, NY: Bantam.