From time to time, each one of us catches on fire---emotionally, that is. Or as Dr. John Gottman, founding scientist and psychologist at the The Gottman Institute describes, we become “emotionally flooded.” When we are flooded, we go into fight-or-flight mode. Our blood pressure, heart rate and pulse increase. Chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol get pumped into our bodies. The result? It is very difficult, if not impossible, to access our smart brains; we may become reactive or shut down.
This is why all our wonderful communication skills can go out the window. In a heated conversation, we may go into attack-defend mode, exhibiting what Gottman calls The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Not only relationships can get us flooded (or heat us up). Non-people stressors--work, finances, learning new things---can set us up to personally sabotage our prior best efforts. It is often when we get flooded that we make those destructive choices---overeating, drinking too much, isolating, procrastinating, gossiping, overspending or even self- injury. The list goes on and on.
So what is one to do about the nasty habit of flooding or catching on fire? I like to think the best advice comes from the fire department. If you literally catch on fire and run around like a crazy person, you will burn up. Standing there and doing nothing is equally dangerous. We all learn in elementary school that if you catch on fire you should STOP, DROP AND ROLL!
So why couldn’t we do the same for emotional/physiological fires? First we must learn to tune into the fact that we are on fire before it gets too big. Tuning into what you are experiencing physically during stress may be easier for some than identifying the emotion. Some of my clients have noted a sudden pressure in their heads, tight fists, or a sick feeling in their stomachs. I personally feel a choking around my neck. Becoming more aware can help extinguish the fire before a lot of damage is done. Once you have identified the fire (or flooding) here is what you can do.
1. STOP--If it is a conversation and it is all possible, the conversation needs to stop. Now for those who stonewall when they flood this is no problem; it is their stonewalling and shutting down that has contributed to the problem. To preserve themselves and avoid destruction they may completely detach and even physically leave. The problem with this is if it is done in the wrong way and without proper communication, the dyad goes into distance-pursuer or attack-defend mode. The attacker feels like the stonewaller doesn’t care and really both are flooded---one is just fighting, the other is fleeing, and the attacker might chase harder if he interprets the withdrawal as not caring.
The difference between stonewalling and stopping would be saying something like, “I am feeling flooded and need a break.” It is making a commitment to come back and try to discuss again after decompressing. That might mean a 10-minute break is needed. It might mean a day break is needed. It might mean a break is needed till someone else such as a marriage counselor can help coach the conversation and teach the couple new skills. A prior conversation that addresses the pattern and destructiveness of persisting in a conversation where one or both partners are flooded is helpful; a plan of what to do about that is needed. In this way one is prepared to give the other the space to self-soothe.
2. DROP--Bringing down the elevated physiology is a must. Learning how to stop and really breathe is incredibly helpful, so never undermine something as simple as breathing. There is a wonderful phone app, Breathing Zone, which allows you to practice breathing. Others practice prayer or meditation to bring down elevated pulses. It is not unusual to for me in the privacy of my home or behind closed office doors to drop to my knees---a literal dropping to solidify the moment---and say “Jesus, please help me. I can’t do this. Help me let go and give this to you.”
The key to your DROP strategy working is practicing it often---even when you are not flooded. Things like breathing, prayer, and meditation are great tools, but if you only save them for when you are flooded, you will be annoyed with them. It would be like me having a jack in my trunk, but it won’t help me when I have a flat tire because I have no confidence or skill with the tool.
3. ROLL--Once you drop, you can embrace a new mindset. Tap into all those smart things you know. Find that perspective and clarify your thinking. Know your commitments, values and what is important. Embrace listening and understanding others as much as you want to be understood. If you have spiritual beliefs, embrace that you are taken care of and have all you need. Embrace taking one day at a time.
Jill Lillard, MA LPC is an approved member of The Gottman Referral Network