John Gottman described the experience of total overwhelm as being emotionally flooded. He employed the term in his explanation of what happens to many couples in the heat of an argument. When things get intense and we are overcome by our emotional state we lose our ability to communicate effectively and arguments degenerate quickly to old buried hurts and remarks that erode the trust and compassion that we take so long to build.
Emotional flooding also happens in other situations where the demands exceed the resources or even when things just don’t work out as we planned. Getting flooded is the step beyond overwhelmed when we lose our capacity to think through a situation and we are literally overcome by our physiology. Our entire system is being directed by our coursing stress hormones, which we experience by the classic fight/flight: increased heart rate, shortness of breath and our ability to think and process narrows.
I noticed today as my overwhelmed state turned to flooding how quickly the experience pulled me into a downward spiral. Attempts to see the positive in the situation felt like grasping for straws. Catching yourself on the edge of this slippery slope by practicing the art of selective attention is one sure way back to solid ground. There is no good conversation or outcome that can arise from a flooded state.
I gave myself a time out today, removing myself from any further stimulus and discontinuing the conversation. I remember learning the power of the time out from the years of raising my kids. It is easy to identify the place where a three-year-old or even a seven-year-old is entirely flooded and amazing how just a brief time out can help the smallest people among us to find a center line again.
I made myself just breathe. I made myself not try to find a way through. I made myself feel the experience. After the flood subsided as they always do, I choose to not add any fuel to the fire. I stopped problem solving and dedicated the rest of the evening to finding quiet inside. I will have time tomorrow to try again to solve the issues that are waiting.
Giving yourself permission to take a time out is often the best thing you can do for your relationships and is a sustaining skill for a positive life. Knowing when you have had enough is one of the most essential boundaries to learn and give yourself. It is also a boundary that cultivates healthy relationships.