How to know when you are flooded

 Written by Rachel Ealy


With the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey and the threat of Hurricane Florence on the East Coast, the major effects of flooding have been weighing on my mind lately. Did you know that you can become flooded, too? This is known as emotional flooding, which occurs when we become so emotionally overwhelmed that we are unable to communicate in an effective way. Dr. Gottman defines flooding as, “when you feel overwhelmed and disorganized by the way your partner expresses negativity” (Gottman & Gottman, 2000-2011). The body’s physiological response includes increased heart-rate, shallowed breathing, and tense muscles. Essentially, our bodies go in to “fight or flight mode” and rational thought goes out the door. Some people react by doing and saying harmful things, while others completely shut down communication and give their partner the silent treatment. Dr. Gottman defines shutting down or withdrawing from conflict as “stonewalling” which also happens to be one of his identified Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. Dr. Gottman’s research shows that when our heart rate is in excess of 100 beats per minutes we are unable to hear the person we are attempting to communicate with, no matter how hard we try.

Much of Dr. Gottman’s research on flooding is centered around marriage and communication with your partner. However, this does not mean that emotional flooding only occurs in intimate relationships. Emotional flooding can happen in any relationship where communication exists, such as in a friendship or family relationship. In essence, emotional flooding can happen to anyone.

The best thing to do when you become flooded is to self-sooth. This can be done by taking an agreed-upon break for at least 20-minute and doing something to distract yourself. Do not take this break to stew over the incident in order come up with ammunition for the argument, conflict, or disagreement. During your break try going on a walk, journaling, reading, or practicing deep breathing. Remember how we talked about shallow breathing earlier? Shallow breathing occurs in the chest, where small amounts of air is drawn in, which can result in rapid breathing and hyperventilation. Shallow breathing only fuels the fight or flight response. We can combat this by practicing deep breathing, which involves slowly breathing in through your nose to the count of 5, pausing, and slowing breathing out through your mouth to the count of 5. Place your hands on your belly and as you breathe in through your nose, fill your lower lungs so that your belly expands. When you breathe out through your mouth deflate your stomach. When you first start practicing deep breathing, intentionally exaggerate the movements so that you are able to fill your lungs as much as possible. One thing that I like to do is wear my Fitbit while I practice deep breathing so that I am able to see my heart rate decrease over time. Typically, I check my heart rate at the beginning and after about 10 deep breaths, I check my heart rate again. If it is not decreasing, that is just a sign that I need to continue practicing. The key is to be aware and to listen to what your body needs instead of subscribing to a certain amount of time to calm down, only to become frustrated when you are not there yet. Just remember to take your time and to take care of yourself so that you are able to take care of the important relationships in your life!


Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. S. (2000-2011). Defining flooding self-soothing and how to do it [PDF File].


Written by Rachel Ealy, M.Ed, 

Rachel is a counselor at Heights Family Counseling. She believes that counseling should be for everyone as everyone could use extra support, a place to define purpose and values, and tools to use to tackle life’s everyday problems, as well as someone to support your successes in life. Rachel specializes in working with children, adolescents, young adults, and couples. Learn more about Rachel's counseling approach by visiting