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Aaron Cooper, Ph.D.
• June 13, 2023

For your partner’s next birthday or special occasion, consider this gift idea: “My gift to you today is a promise to handle myself better in the future when I’m flooded with emotion.”  

What’s flooded? It’s when you’re overwhelmed with anger, upset, fear, shame — any painful negative emotion. It’s when you’re up to your neck in it, unable to resist blurting out something you might later regret or, alternatively, exiting or shutting down in a manner that indicates “Don’t bother me about this.” Flooding makes it just about impossible to engage in reasonable dialogue. Think of it as the emotional brain grabbing the wheel and knocking the logical brain into the back seat (see Two Brains). When we’re flooded, it’s hard to listen well, to reflect on what’s happening, to see the situation from a partner’s point of view.  

The good news is that flooding can be managed through the skill of self-soothing — knowing how to bring ourselves back to some degree of calm. With practice, it’s a skill that can be learned and even mastered. But don’t wait until you’re flooded to try this out; practice it in calm times, too, when you don’t really need it, just as a way of developing the habit. Here are the components of the skill:  

Know when you’re flooded. This requires a bit of mindfulness: the ability to notice your emotions as they stir, to sense that you’re feeling overwhelmed in the moment (see The Mind’s Traffic).ii  

Take deep breaths. Inhale deeply so air fills your stomach, then very slowly exhale through your mouth. Thirty seconds of deep breathing can be enough to bring down your level of overwhelm. 

If deep breathing doesn’t restore relative calm, request a time out so you can go to another room to listen to music, watch TV, or have a walk outdoors. Give yourself at least 20 minutes. This is approximately the amount of time the body’s chemistry requires to return to calm. (Give your partner a symbolic raincheck that indicates your intention to resume where the conversation left off.) 

During your time out, avoid ruminating on what led to feeling flooded in the first place. Clear your head completely. 

Once you’ve restored your sense of emotional balance, you’re in good shape to circle back and resume the earlier conversation. Begin by talking about what it was that triggered you (e.g., provocative language, disdainful tone of voice, unfair comparisons, etc.) so that the two of you might avoid a repeat of the earlier experience.   

Knowing how to wisely handle flooding when it knocks you off course — that’s a gift any partner would appreciate. 

Aaron Cooper, Ph.D.

During Dr. Cooper’s forty plus years as a psychotherapist, he has been exposed to a great many therapeutic approaches and schools of thought and has assembled his own eclectic framework. How he approaches couples counseling differs in some ways from how he approaches family and individual therapy, but all his work is informed by the belief that our emotions tell us a lot about ourselves and our relationships — and so are critically important to understand.
References & Citations

i This Tip is inspired by “Gifts from the heart” from The Gottman Institute blog. 

ii The ability to notice the emotions and sensations stirring inside the body is part of the skill of mindfulness. Here’s a step-by-step simple training you can undertake at home to develop mindfulness.