by Kristin Kuiper, MSW, LMSW
This morning I was irritable…I was frustrated...and trying not to let my three little ones on to the fact that I needed space but couldn’t get it. Summer is here and I’ve adjusted my work schedule so that I can enjoy the mornings with my three, six, and seven year old. This morning was just difficult getting from point A to point B—I’m sure many of you can relate to this reality, especially now that school is out. This morning, my three year old, who is potty training, was having another accident; my six year old was asking for a container for the moth she just caught; and my seven year old was asking for help to pour cereal in the same moment that I was on the phone trying to book a hotel for our next summer trip—and these types of moments, where I felt torn in three, happened all morning. Breathe…breathe…breathe! Even though I know these moments are not uncommon for parents, I have a hard time accepting that they happen so frequently, and will continue to happen for years to come.
Whether it be in parenting or in other relationships, we can often find ourselves so exasperated, so frustrated, that our heart rate actually follows these emotions. When our heart rate creeps into the high 90’s, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline, which in some situations is actually quite beneficial, keeping us from danger and prompting an acting on instinct type of response to our situation. However, in relationships this response can often lead to challenges—we can no longer think clearly, our sense of humor all but disappears, we lose the ability to creatively solve the issue at hand. We lash out, leave the situation or boil inside and negative thoughts take over. This can be harmful in relationships and is usually what leads to action that we later regret.
There is a term for this, what happens when our bodies follow our emotions—it’s called getting “flooded,” a term developed and researched by John Gottman, a well known relationship expert. You can tell if you are “flooded” by taking your pulse—find your pulse and count it for fifteen seconds and then multiply by four). If your heart rate is above 95, this is your body’s signal telling you that you need to step back from the situation and calm yourself so that you can preserve the relationship that holds this interaction. It takes about twenty minutes for the heart to return to baseline heart rate and this can be best accomplished by completely distracting yourself from the situation. Turn on the TV, read a magazine, listen to music, breathe deeply while thinking of your favorite space—step away from the situation with the intent to return when you feel more calm.
Learning about flooding and knowing your own body signals that this is happening as well as how to respond is a very practical way that you can take responsibility for yourself and the relationships that are important to you. I have seen this work with couples, with parents and teens, and now am putting it to use in my own life. I’d love to hear your experiences and questions with putting this to work in yours.