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Flooding

The power, damage and chaos that flooding causes is all too evident this week, as parts of England endure torrential rain and people loses their homes to a rising tide of water that carries all before it. The human and financial cost of recovery and repair will be vast. There is another kind of flooding, which is equally powerful, equally damaging, that occurs all the time and often passes unnoticed. Yet it has equally high costs for those that experience it and it is often a crucial factor in the disrupting and ending of relationships.

When people flood the whole way they experience the world, including themselves changes. They stop hearing what is being said and experience a sense of being overwhelmed that can lead to reactions they later regret. Sometimes a person will freezes, as a part of their fight or flight response. Typically thinking becomes stereotypical, so that creative problem solving ceases. Empathy for self and others becomes difficult. In relationships people start stonewalling their partner. Classic signs of which are the folding of their arms or turning away to find something else to do, somewhere else to go. Stonewalling for John Gottman, the worlds leading researcher on relationships, is one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse that wrecks relationships.

When flooding happens, breathing moves to the upper chest, as it becomes shallower and the pulse increases. Adrenalin and cortisol flood the nervous system. Once the nervous system has flooded, time outs are often a necessary part of preventing conflict escalation, as they allow for the released neurotransmitters to be absorbed and passed into urine, something that takes twenty minutes or so, assuming no further upset is experienced. What also helps is changing how one is breathing. Alexander Technique can be a great help here with its emphasis on gaining conscious control of breathing, as can mindfulness and focusing techniques.

Flooding as a physiological response is well understood and is more common in men. People who are physically fit are less prone to it, while people who were abused or neglected in childhood often experience chronic flooding, so that they are always on red alert looking for danger, even when things are peaceful and going their way. Innocuous events can acquire major significance and catastrophization is common, along with thinking errors. These errors mean that thinking can become chaotic, so that it becomes difficult to understand others intentions, which are often misread, in part because it is often easier to project fears, judgments on to them and then to act as if they are true, rather than to get to know who they are. Concomitantly the flooded person fails to discover who they might be, who they could be. They can become stuck, chronically paralysed from the terror of abandonment, annihilation, obliteration. They are dominated by a fear of the void, unable to make progress with others or in their lives.

For people who flood like this, learning to focus, without judgment on their fears and what or who terrifies them, is a first step in getting some sense of spontaneity within themselves and then with others. It is a first step, that is best consciously learned and then intentionally deployed. At all times the most important thing is to recognise that you are flooding and to then to take time to stop, focus and breathe before attempting anything else. In relationships, it is important to take times outs and to learn to soothe oneself. Partners can help here by recognising that their partners are flooded and therefore unlikely to hear what is being said. They can suggest timeouts, use empathy, understanding, curiosity and gentle humour to establish a sense of safety from which it is possible for the person who was flooded to begin to move forward with them.