How to deal with the emotional flood
Learning to self-soothe is one of the most important skills to learn for life, let alone healthy relationships. Self- soothing, which is also referred to as emotional regulation, is needed when a part of our brain sounds an alarm signalling a threat in our environment. This is really great when we need to quickly get away from a dangerous animal or out of a burning house but not so great when we are trying to deal with an important issue with our partner.
When we become emotionally overwhelmed or flooded, our brain function changes, and all of a sudden the conversation we are having with our partner can feel like an attack. A lot of things happen to us physiologically such as an increase in heart rate, decrease of oxygen supply to the brain, blood rushing to our extremities and we all feel this in different ways. Think about what physiological feelings come over you when you are in a situation that your partner says something that triggers you and you feel a wave of emotion coming over you. I feel a tightness in my chest and fogginess in my head. Others feel a heat around their head, numbness, tight muscles, clenching of fists, sensations in their belly… We all have our own set of responses. It is important to recognise these so that you can then choose to stop the conversation and take the time to self-soothe. You need to let your partner know what you are doing rather than just walking away from the conversation as much as your body is urging you to get away as quickly as possible.
Once we are in this state it is IMPOSSIBLE to have a productive conversation and we need to find a way to self-soothe to be able to re-engage in a conversation. We all need to find our own strategies to self soothe as it is not a one size fits all sort of thing. The more we practice our strategies the easier it will be for us to access them, especially when our brain is not functioning at its best. We also need to practice them outside of the times that we are overwhelmed so they are familiar things to do and we can do it without too much thought.
The idea of leaving a heated conversation mid-way is quite challenging for a lot of people. But it is something that couples need to agree on doing to improve communication and avoid escalating arguments. When we do leave this conversation we need to take a visual break from the other (you can be under the same room but be in different rooms) for at least 20 minutes to self-soothe. This is when the strategy you have chosen comes into action.
Strategies to improve self-soothing:
Breathing- Slow, deep breathing sends a message to our brain that there is no threat in our environment and helps the body go back to normal function after it has gone into an emotionally flooded state. It is good to practice deep breathing, that goes down into your belly, with the space below your belly button rising and falling. Practice this daily while you are on your commute to work, at your desk, in the shower, so that when you need to do it you know how it feels in your body.
Get out in nature- use the sensation of grass under your bare feet or the feeling of the sun rays on your skin to calm yourself down. Getting out in nature regularly is really important for good mental health generally but to take moments while you are out to be mindful and notice what it is like to connect with nature will help to use this strategy when you are at home and need to self-soothe.
Exercise- Going out for a run, doing some stretches or even a set of star jumps will help with the tension building up in your body. Follow this with some breathing and you will feel your body coming back to full normal function ready to re-engage with your partner.
Music- listening to music you enjoy is a great way to self-soothe. Make sure you are really listening to it and not playing the argument or the thing that has upset you over in your head. Listen to the words or follow the melody closely in your mind so that it gives you the break you need from the conflict.
Mindfulness- Breathing can be a form of mindfulness but it includes any strategy that brings you completely into the current moment. Practicing this daily allows you to have this strategy ready on hand when you need to self-soothe. There are many apps that have guided mindful meditations. Our favourites are Smiling Mind and Headspace. Some of the practice is sitting down with your eyes closed focusing on your breathing but really you can do anything mindfully. One of my favourite is a mindful walk where you really focus on how your body is moving while you are walking and you notice all your senses such as what you smell and seeing little details that you usually miss as you walk down the same street you regularly do.
Distraction- watching some TV or reading could be a good way to distract yourself and allow your body and mind to calm down. This one needs to be clearly communicated with your partner because it could then trigger them if you turn the TV on mid argument. The best way to approach this is by explaining that you need to calm down to be able to communicate better and give a set time that you will re-engage with them. You don’t want it to be too long but usually we need at least 20 minutes.
Counselling- Talking about things that create high levels of emotionality help us by getting the two sides of our brain to communicate- we use the left side of our brain to put words to the things we are experiencing from the right, emotional side of the brain. This helps us make better sense of what we are experiencing. Talking to close friends and family is also great. Journalling is also a way to have words to explain the feelings and process them.
These are great strategies to use to improve the communication in your relationship but can be used for any situations that get us overwhelmed. It could be conflict with family members or friends, stress at work, getting bad news or being in any stressful situation.