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Taking a Time Out When We’re Flooded

The Gottman Institute calls it a Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA) state that a person goes into when they have started to emotionally flood and they are starting to shut down emotionally and physically.  We’ll just call it flooding. When flooded, we might experience a racing heart, we might feel tense, we might go into what feels like fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.


The 4 Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) tend to show up during flooding.  This is because we (or our partners) are having a hard time managing the emotional flooding and are seeking ways to pull back or push away.


People who flooded have lost the ability to listen, some report hearing music or white noise, others report it being completely silent.  People in flooding also can’t access their sense of humor, a key component to being able to navigate through conflict.  Additionally when we are in the state of flooding, we can’t give or receive affection which means any attempt by our partners to help us soothe or any attempt we make to soothe our partner is often overlooked and not helpful.

We can tell when our partner is flooded because they start to show us the 4 horsemen by either criticizing, becoming defensive, stonewalling or expressing contempt.  Another way that we can tell our partner is flooded is if they start to repeat themselves (this is because in their physiological state, they can’t listen).


Signs we may be flooded

  • Periods of long eye closures or eyelid flutters
  • Stonewalling
  • Arms akimbo (Superman power stance)
  • Hips swiveled away from partner
  • No positive affect
  • Controlled facial expressions (chin tightens, lip or inside cheek biting, hands to face)
  • Anger (lips pressed together or can’t see red part of upper lip)
  • Sadness / distress (inner corners of the brows are drawn up and together)
  • Fear (brows go straight across)
  • Nervous habits / tics (playing with hair, props like pencils)
  • Voice gets higher
  • Any indication someone has stopped breathing, is holding breathe
  • Not finishing sentences, repeating self, slips of the tongue, stuttering



  1. Stop Immediately and take a break.  Breaks should last at least 30 minutes in length.  Research shows that it takes our bodies about 30 minutes to work through the physiological arousal of flooding.  Sometimes we need more time and that’s OK.  Breaks shouldn’t last more than 24 hours, after 24 hours the likelihood that you and your partner will return to the issue decreases.

If your partner is already dealing with flooding maybe try:

I notice you are doing [actions / behaviors], you seem [emotion], are you [emotion]?

  1. Set a time to meet up again with your partner.  Saying something like “This is hard, I need to take a break.  How about we continue this conversation in 30 minutes, is that OK?” can help you to communicate your needs and set a time to return to the conflict.
  2. During the break take positive actions to help yourself calm down.  Physical movement such as going for a walk or doing a short yoga routine can help your body to process the physiological response to your emotions.  Other soothing activities to do during a break can include listening to music, watching a TV show, doing a meditation, going outside to get fresh air.
  3. Don’t ruminate on the issue.  If possible, think about something else, anything else.  Spending your break ruminating on the issue will cause you to re-enter the conflict with more fire and fury.
  4. If you need more time, ask for it, tacking on 30 minutes to an hour each time and checking in with your partner as you go.
  5. If your partner becomes upset with your need for a longer break, offer reassurance.  A statement like “This is important to me and I want to make sure that I can really understand what you are telling me.  I can’t do that right now but I do love you and I want to work through this with you” can be reassuring to your partner.


Some suggested self soothing techniques

  • Breathing
  • Body scanning
  • Imagery

Also, what Time Out’s are not.

Have any thoughts, questions, suggestions, or comments on this article? Broken link? Wondering how to this can be applied, modified, or adapted to your polyamorous, swinging, kink/ BDSM, or otherwise interesting relationship? Feel free to reach out to us here.