When Emotions Overwhelm Clear Thinking

Marriage Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft 

It’s nice to think of ourselves as thoughtful, rational beings who respond to stressful situations with careful consideration. Now, welcome back to reality. We may be thoughtful and rational at times, but we are also the products of millennia of biological evolution. Our ancestors survived because they developed an instinctive fight-or-flight response that does not require any thought. After all, high-tailing it out of the area when you see a tiger does not require a whole lot of decision-making.

Emotional flooding

Like it or not, we carry that fight-or-flight instinct in our modern day lives. Unfortunately, many situations trigger the response even though our lives are not in danger. Today, that response is associated with “emotional flooding.” Writing for HuffPost, Kelsey Borresen says, “Think about how disagreements with your partner usually go. If they often leave you feeling defensive, talking in circles, saying things you regret or shutting down, then you might be dealing with emotional flooding.” Crediting John Gottman for his research on the subject, she defines emotional flooding as “the psychological and physiological overwhelm people experience during conflict.” The problem is that that response pretty much negates any chance of resolving an issue.

Wondering if you have experienced emotional flooding during a heated conversation with your partner? Think back — did your heartbeat go up (maybe over 100 beats per minute), did your hands get shaky or did you feel a tightness in your chest? Oops – those are pretty accurate indications your primal instincts were clouding your judgment and thought.

The downside of emotional flooding while trying to resolve an issue is obvious. It’s almost impossible to understand the issue from your partner’s perspective, and vice versa, which tends to lead people to give up trying to reach an agreement.

Fortunately, we have the ability to rise above our instincts and begin responding rationally even when a conversation gets heated. Borresen offers a few tips that may help.

“Learn to recognize what being flooded feels like for you.” You may identify with the pounding heartbeat and tightness in the chest mentioned above — or you may not. The point is to take a moment to reflect about how your body is responding during moments of conflict, whether it’s sweaty palms, quickened breathing or anything else.

“Step away from the conversation for at least 20 minutes — but not more than 24 hours.” Stress hormones activate fast, but they don’t subside as quickly. Give yourself a chance to regroup. However, Borresen warns, “take a break and do something soothing that doesn’t involve rehashing the argument in your head.” That will only keep your emotions high.

“Regulate your nervous system.” I have written before about techniques for overcoming anxiety, including the benefits of mindfulness. (See “Be. Here. Now.”) Practicing mindfulness through breathing exercises, yoga or meditation is a wonderful way to reduce stress quickly. The key is to find what works for you — a practice you can count on to calm yourself down so that you can regain control of your emotions and thinking.

“Thank about why you responded to conflict this way.” Do you have a suspicion that you over-reacted to a comment or action but don’t quite know why? That may be because you subconsciously associated the word or action with a past trauma, which triggered a perhaps out-of-proportion reaction. It will take some honest self-reflection to try and identify what the real problem is. If you need help with that, please give me a call. Talking through an issue is often an excellent way to begin healing.

“Remember that repair is more important than resolve.” Sometimes an issue cannot be completely resolved. If the two of you admit that and instead simply decide to focus on all the positives in your relationship, you may then feel connected even without full resolution.