When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed/Activated During an Argument

When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed/Activated During an Argument

Personally, and professionally, I’ve noticed that seldomly do we find ourselves able to argue without our emotions getting the best of us. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Becoming activated or flooded during a conflictual conversation with a loved one or our partner is common, and completely understandable. Furthermore, our activation can be a message as to what is going on within our minds and bodies.

The “flight or fight” narrative is one I’m sure many of us have heard, but what exactly does this mean regarding an argument? Essentially, when our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) detects some kind of threat, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline start to overwhelm our bodies. Once this happens, our ability to use logic and reasoning goes out the window, and we start to be flooded by emotions. Maybe you’re calm one minute while communicating with your partner, and the next, you’re throwing a hurtful insult their way without a second thought. In these moments, your body is not differentiating between a real versus imagined threat! When emotional flooding occurs, you may find yourself physically leaving the environment where the argument is taking place, or maybe you check-out mentally (flight). Or you may find yourself fighting with your body and words.

Our bodies will always clue us in on what’s going on within us before our brains do. If you struggle with anxiety, you may notice physical symptoms before the acknowledgement that you’re experiencing anxiety. The same occurs with emotional flooding: your body will tell you that you’re feeling flooded before the acknowledgement that you are. The first step in managing your emotional experience during an argument is to pay attention to your body or find ways to be more connected with yourself. This way, the minute that you notice that you are beginning to feel activated (maybe an increased heart rate, a desire to say something hurtful, racing thoughts, etc.), you can do something about it!

If you or your partner are unable to self-regulate during the argument, like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or soothing self-talk, either one of you can initiate a time-out. This way, you and your partner both have a set amount of time to practice these soothing techniques before resuming the conversation. Oftentimes, it can feel incredibly difficult to have the courage to request a time-out or share with your partner that you are feeling overwhelmed. That’s okay! Techniques like self-soothing and time-outs are not going to be done perfectly or effectively every time. Practicing this approach takes time and hard work. It’s also okay if you need to practice a time-out several times about the same topic. Some subject matters can be incredibly intimate, and trigger distressing emotions throughout. No number of time-outs or moments of emotional flooding are self-defining. This is a universal human experience, and one that can feel like climbing a mountain.

Emotional flooding can happen for a multitude of reasons. If you’re finding it difficult for you and your partner to communicate while feeling flooded or noticing that initiating and keeping a time-out is grueling, seek out couples therapy. There could be more happening behind the scenes that make it hard to work through a conflictual conversation. Emotional flooding does not mean that there is something wrong with you, rather, it’s important information that your body is sharing with you!


If you’re in the Dallas area and needing a therapist to help with your relationship problems, please feel free to contact me today.

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