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What is flooding? How to avoid this toxic relationship habit during lockdown

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Anna Brech
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Are you prone to sudden outbursts of anger? A relationship therapist explains why “flooding” – an involuntary reflex which shortcuts the brain’s ability to use logic – is bad news for people living together during lockdown.

However lonely it can feel to be alone while on lockdown, it can also be tough to live with other people. Whether you’re with friends, your parents or your lover, tempers are likely to fray when everyone is forced to be together 24/7, often adapting to different habits and routines in the process.

Sooner or later, you may very well snap and find yourself yelling or saying something that you regret. As relationship therapist Assael Romanelli explains on Psychology Today, this reaction is recognised by behavioural experts as “flooding”. 

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It describes a state of mind in which you go from relaxed to furious in seconds, and appear to have little control over the emotions that overwhelm you. It may feel like you’re being hijacked by the flash of anger that surfaces in that moment.

Flooding denotes an internal response and can be emotionally toxic – both for you and the people you live with.

As Romanelli explains, the experience of flooding is likely to be more intense during the coronavirus lockdown, as it’s “more common and harder to control” compared to normal times.

Illustration of a man with his head in his hands
Do you feel hijacked by your own angry feelings?

Flooding comes from a survival state of mind in which you are keyed up and alert to danger. You’re unable to think rationally or use logic in the way you would ordinarily because you are in action mode.

Worse still, this mode is contagious. “Due to mirror neurons, whenever a person enters that state, whoever is close to them may immediately also move into this mode,” Romanelli writes.

In hunter-gather times, this was a plus as the whole group could react as one to signs of danger (a saber-toothed cat, say, or a venomous snake lurking in the undergrowth). Fast-forward to modern-day lockdown, however, and it will only serve to escalate rows. You get furious and verbally lash out, your mum/flatmate/partner mirrors your response and before you know it, you’re slamming doors or screaming at one another.

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Luckily, there are things you can do to move from the survival state of mind associated with flooding to what Romanelli terms an “engaged state of mind”. This is a more restful, relaxed and logical state, and it too can quickly spread from one person to the next. 

To transition from one state to the other, he suggests following a series of physical steps, including taking a 20-minute time out from the other person (or more if you still feel hyped up after that period). Drinking water, eating and moving around can also break the mental state of flooding, by stimulating new parts of the body and nervous system. 

You can reach beyond the immediate moment to find relief, too. As life coach Mel Robbins points out in this video from her show, rage is often a reaction to events or behaviours that have occured in the past. So understanding and reflecting upon where your anger might come from is an important part of taming the fury that you feel.

Flooding happens when your brain enters survival mode

Long before lockdown became a thing, it seems many of us were prone to flooding. A 2018 YouGov study found nearly three-quarters of people experienced “office rage” on a regular basis, while The British Association of Anger Management reports that one in four of us are worried about how angry we sometimes feel. 

But, as mental health activist Matt Haig highlighted in a recent Instagram post, anger isn’t always a negative force. “Silence and smiles aren’t the only way to respond to pain,” he said, referencing the anxiety many people feel about the current situation. He went onto point out that anger can be a motivating force, in part because of the perception by angry people that they are moving towards a resolution to a certain situation or issue.

However your anger takes shape, it’s good to know that you can regain control over the sudden outbursts that seem to come out of nowhere. And arming yourself with knowledge of why the brain reacts in the way that it does is a vital first step of the process.

Read more about preventative techniques to keep flooding at bay on Psychology Today.

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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