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  • Writer's pictureYvette E. McDonald, LCSW-QS

Reminders from the Couch on Emotional Flooding

Some fresh perspective and tools on a concept I speak about regularly within individual, couples and parent coaching sessions.

Today let's take a minute or so to remind ourselves about the topic of Flooding and how to take an effective break.

Emotional flooding = take a break

Emotional Flooding: a state of being. It occurs when a person feels deeply threatened or feels like there is no escape. A feeling of overwhelm. Your heart rate increases to over 100 beats per minute. The result of emotional flooding is negative interactions. It effects your conversation, interaction, thinking, ability to access humor, ability to listen, process, effectively deal with the situation/scenario/problem or behavior(s). This all boils down to nothing productive occurring as one's ability to effectively and efficiently handle the conflict is derailed. Researcher Dr. Dan Siegel calls this expense "flipping your lid," as you lose access to all your creative abilities and executive functions which are located in your frontal cerebral cortex, the "lid" of your brain. You lose your sense of humor, perspective, wisdom, reasoning, emotional regulation, memory, problem-solving abilities, and find yourself walking in circles repeating yourself over and over again.

Possible Signs of Emotional Flooding:

Signs are unique to each individual, you really need to know yourself to narrow down your signs of emotional flooding

  • face flushes back sweating

  • skin starts to get goosbumbs

  • loose your ability to reason

  • crying

  • brain fog

  • pacing

  • can't think

  • can't communicate

  • heart rate racing

  • closed off to rational thinking and understanding

  • loss of memory

  • difficulty controlling emotions and words

  • Shutting down, withdrawing

  • various body cues

Resolve: Take a Break

  • You will be wasting your time if both or one of you is flooded and you continue engaging each other. It's okay to take a break and excuse yourself from the conversation.

  • This is also a mutually agreeable break for the betterment of the relationship.

  • Its recognizing that both the person and topic is important but that there's an inability to continue until emotional flooding has subsided. Continued engagement can result in a lack of grace, understanding, curiosity, kindness, respect, love, compassion, clarity, and processing.

  • Remind yourself that if you continue to engage it will be a battle of nothingness. John Gottman says it best "The number one thing that couples argue about is nothing."

  • Continuing will also put you at risk of harming the person and/or the relationship by saying something that's going to hurt them or the relationship. It truly is going into a danger zone in which the only thing you come out with on the other side is regret, hurt, trust issues, confusion, and pain. In essence making the problem bigger than it was ever meant to be and putting yourself at a higher risk for violence. Some may engage in situational domestic violence, emotional abuse or hitting a child.

  • Tip: if your partner is clearly flooded DO NOT say "you need to calm down." Instead take a hit for the team and say "I'm flooded, I need to take a break let's meet back in 20 minutes."


  1. Create a safe word or a hand signal. Keep in mind the safe word isn't to be used when your uncomfortable (as conflict will and can bring some discomfort) in the conversation but when there is emotional flooding and you or the other person has flipped their lid the safe word needs to be used.

  2. Set an alarm. Emotional flooding takes no less than 20 minutes and no more than 24 hours. *If either of you are not ready after the 20 minutes then come together communicate where you are at and set a new time or sometimes depending on the time of day just go to bed.

  3. Separate. Go to separate places. Remember parents that your children need to calm down as well and should be encouraged and aided in creating their own calm down ritual.

  4. Do something self-soothing to bring your heart rate down and restore balance. The break cannot be a break that has you repeating thoughts or parts of the conversation. You truly need to disengage mentally and emotionally. Suggestions: cleaning a room, kitchen, yoga, read a book or magazine, take a shower, listen to soothing music, go for a walk, get some green time, breathe, practice relaxation breathing, coloring, scroll Pinterest, etc. The key is to turn your attention to something completely different in order to bring your heart rate down.

  5. Come back to the conversation/situation. Discuss, work through and resolve. Making sure to cover some main points such as expressing and understanding perspective, taking responsibility, game planning, and seeking to understand.*Tip: writing down what the other person is saying, become an investigator of the heart. Writing while listening actually turns off the defensive system of the brain.

  6. For parents you may need to do a technique known as co-regulation. This is where you borrow another person's cerebral cortex when you are getting flooded and need a break. You take a break and let another person (parent, grandparent, childcare provider, or friend) take over.


Yvette E. McDonald is the owner and counselor at Traveling Light Counseling, a practice for couples, individuals, and parents helping with all things relational in the Port Saint Lucie and Martin County area.

I'm passionate about helping people grow and becoming better versions of self. If you're in the Saint Lucie or Martin County Area and can use some help with flooding and or the damage it has created over time, please give me a call at 772-361-8448 for a free, 15-minute phone consultation.


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