If your heart rate exceeds 94 beats per minute when you are in an argument with your spouse, you are “flooded.” That’s another way of saying that your brain has activated your body’s fight or flight response. Recognizing and responding to flooding are cornerstone relationship skills our couples counselors teach at Living Well.
What Happens When You are Flooded
When you are flooded, your brain changes. The flow of information is routed away from your cerebral cortex and down to your brain stem. That’s not good, because your cerebral cortex is where your empathy, sense of humor, critical thinking, and problem solving take place. This phenomena can be observed in brain imaging technology. The cerebral cortex goes dark and the brain stem lights up like a Christmas tree.
Your brain stem’s only job is survival. When it takes over in the middle of an argument it automatically categorizes your spouse as a threat to either defeat or escape. You will do and say things when you are flooded that don’t even make sense to you after your body becomes calm again.
If you wear a Fitbit or an Apple watch, you can easily set a heart rate alarm that will let you know when you are flooded. You can also pick up a pulse oximeter for about $10 at your local pharmacy.
When you become flooded it is crucial that you take a break. But don’t just walk away or shut your spouse out. That will make them feel abandoned and probably trigger flooding in them. Say this – “I’m overwhelmed and I need to calm down. You are important to me and what we are discussing is important. When I am calm I will come get you and we can try again.”
If your spouse asks for a break it is futile to pursue them. It will only drive them further into fight or flight, and escalate the conflict. It just isn’t a good idea to force someone who has lost access to their cerebral cortex to solve a difficult issue with you. Honor that request.
The bare minimum for disengaging the fight or flight response is 20 minutes. Most people can’t pull it off that quickly. It takes as long as it takes. You can shorten the duration of flooding by doing something that takes your mind off the argument. Read a magazine, do the dishes, or go for a walk. When you are calm, honor your commitment to go back to your partner and seek resolution to the argument.
At Living Well Therapy and Coaching we help distant couples get connected and find peace in their home.