We know what anger is. It’s our most volatile emotion. And while it’s natural to experience it, the damaging effects of too much anger (hurtful words, screaming, demeaning actions, aggressiveness, etc.) in our marriage can last for years and trigger intense emotions that sometimes lead to flooding. But wait. What is flooding, and why is it so damaging?
You may not know the term flooding — yet! But in 70% of couples today, one or the other floods in the middle of conflict. This is very important because it is a fight or flight response to anger, which will only hurt our marriage more.
“I’ve had just about all I can take!”
Imagine for a second that you are in a heated argument with your spouse. Maybe he didn’t come home on time for dinner, or she didn’t bother to invite you to a get-together with friends. Either way, both of you are saying some pretty hateful things or are getting super defensive. One of you then says something under your breath as a final dig, and it’s just audible enough to send your spouse into an emotional tailspin.
- Their heart is pounding
- Palms are getting uncontrollably sweaty
- They can’t think straight
- They feel like the victim
- Their breathing is irregular and shallow
This is called flooding. It’s a perception of an emotional threat to the brain and body being flooded with excessive anger and emotion that cannot logically be processed or handled fast enough. As a result, they are so stressed that they become emotionally and physically overwhelmed. Think of it like a flooded car engine — too much fuel has been introduced to the system, and the engine will not start back up again until that excess fuel has had time to clear out. Flooding affects us as humans in much the same way. We shut down. We’d rather be anywhere else than at this particular moment.
It can get so bad that we physically cannot take in any new information or hear what the other person is saying next — even if that other person is trying to apologize.
“An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one
commits many sins.” — Proverbs 29:22 22
How do you Avoid Flooding?
So how do you avoid flooding? Well, the easy answer is not to get angry. A more realistic option is to better understand the interaction between your brain and body so you can recognize when a conversation is about to go over the deep end.
Fear and anger are closely connected to the brain, and when there is too much of either, anger becomes the brain’s default option. We no longer have the ability to assess, judge, or evaluate events, and over time, an angry person continually trains themselves to become angrier — many times without realizing it. Their brain changes positive neural circuits into negative ones. This happens in the Prefrontal Cortex, where impulse control and an ability to prioritize behaviors originate.
Reasons for an angry brain
- Brain Chemistry (lowered serotonin, lack of acetylcholine, excess dopamine)
- Hormones (high levels of testosterone, estrogen, cortisol)
- Trauma or Injury
- Family or Cultural Training
The good news is that we can focus on training our brains to be less angry. This means creating a core sense of safety for ourselves and our spouse. We must make a conscious effort to take good care of ourselves-to self-soothe. It also means consciously turning off anger, increasing empathy, ramping up understanding, and challenging negative thought patterns. For the person experiencing flooding, this means being mindful of how you’re responding to a difficult situation and finding ways to soothe yourself before you actually flood.
John Gottman and the Gottman Institute suggest taking a break from the conversation and doing something that you find soothing for at least 20 minutes. That’s the amount of time it typically takes the body to recover from emotional stress. You might want to read a magazine, watch television, or go for a run or a walk.
These soothing exercises might also help:
- Sit or lie in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes and think about your breathing. Take several slow, deep breaths.
- As you continue to breathe slowly and evenly, mentally scan your body, looking for any areas of tension. When you find an area that’s tense, deliberately tighten the muscles in that area, hold the tension for a few seconds, and then release.
- Now, relax each of those areas of your body by imagining that it’s very heavy. As you envision gravity’s pull, let your muscles relax, and let the tension dissipate.
- Next, imagine that each of those muscle areas is very warm. Imagine that you’re basking in the sun or sitting near a warm, relaxing fireplace. As you grow warmer, even more tension will flow away.
- Continue to relax by envisioning a place that’s especially safe and restful to you. Stay in this place for a few minutes, noticing the details of your surroundings, enjoying its peace and solitude.
Each time you do this exercise, your image of this setting will come more easily to you. Soon, simply thinking of it may help you to automatically relax and find a way to return to your spouse to have a more safe and effective conversation.
All we are saying here is that removing negative things from your marriage is equally as important as putting good stuff in. To truly have a safe and connected marriage, we must be intentional about having healthier conversations with our spouse, being less angry, and knowing how to soothe ourselves when we feel flooded.
Our heart is devoted to caring about people and marriages!
Our heart is devoted to caring about people. We want to ensure you have the tools to communicate better in your marriage. The best way we know how to do that is by spreading the word to more people and let them know that we are here.
Did we leave anything out? What are some ways you try to avoid anger and flooding? Please send us a quick email and help us keep this conversation going. mike@MikeandSusanDawson.com.