Going Ballistic: What to Do When an Argument Hijacks Your Emotions

femme cache derrire mais stopYou’re having a conversation with your partner about something you don’t agree on. It’s getting heated, and you “go there,” and say something that suddenly makes them go ballistic.


Very often in arguments we reach a critical point where everything goes to hell, and heads downward into the sewer. It’s then we’ve lost control of ourselves, and we feel agitated, super angry, hot under the collar. We might feel shame, feel hurt, or even feel fearful and emotionally unsafe. It’s at those times, when we feel our backs against a wall, that we might say ugly things we will regret later, and do damage that we might never be able to undo. Or we might just feel helpless and withdraw completely, sending our partner into an even more aggressive place as they try and elicit a response from us. It’s these emotional triggers that detonate results that make relationships spiral downward in flames.


How do we keep this from happening? How do we recover from that, if it does? Is it even possible? It most certainly is, and it’s vital to the health of your relationship to be able to do that, and that’s what we aim to help you do right now.



Angry man showing time out gesture on grey wall backgroundFlooding happens when you or your partner, during an argument, reach this boiling point, and your pulse is racing, your heart is pumping faster, your face is flushed, your veins are bulging, you’re screaming, sweating and tense, and feel your fuse is about to detonate. Flooding is a term coined by Dr. John Gottman, after several decades of marital research with thousands of couples in his University of Washington lab in Seattle. Tracking responses and measuring hormones in couples in conflict, he observed that these couples were unable to think clearly once they’d crossed a physiological threshold and were then too stressed to control their emotions. Dr. Gottman got his inspiration from Dr. Daniel Goleman’s concept of “amygdala hijack.” The amygdala, according to biology.about.com, is “an almond shaped mass of nuclei (mass of cells) located deep within the temporal lobes of the brain. There are two amygdalae, one situated in each brain hemisphere. The amygdala is a limbic system structure that is involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. It is involved in the processing of emotions such as fear, anger, and pleasure.” More about the amygdala hijack that inspired the “flooding” concept and procedure:



Amygdala hijack is a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.[1] Drawing on the work of Joseph E. LeDoux, Goleman uses the term to describe emotional responses from people which are immediate and overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat.[2]

Goleman states that “[e]motions make us pay attention right now—this is urgent—and gives us an immediate action plan without having to think twice. The emotional component evolved very early: Do I eat it, or does it eat me?” The emotional response “can take over the rest of the brain in a millisecond if threatened.”[4][5] An amygdala hijack exhibits three signs: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode realization if the reaction was inappropriate.[4]

Goleman later emphasized that “self-control is crucial…when facing someone who is in the throes of an amygdala hijack”[6] so as to avoid a complementary hijacking—whether in work situations, or in private life. Thus for example ‘one key marital competence is for partners to learn to soothe their own distressed feelings…nothing gets resolved positively when husband or wife is in the midst of an emotional hijacking.’[7] The danger is that “when our partner becomes, in effect, our enemy, we are in the grip of an ‘amygdala hijack’ in which our emotional memory, lodged in the limbic center of our brain, rules our reactions without the benefit of logic or reason…which causes our bodies to go into a ‘fight or flight’ response.”[8]

Let’s allow Dr. Gottman to further explain how the brain’s amygdala figures into this picture:

Screaming woman, showing timeout gesture with handsWhen we’re stressed the part of the brain that takes over, the part that reacts the most, is the circuitry that was originally designed to manage threats—especially circuits that center on the amygdala, which is in the emotional centers of the brain.

The amygdala is the trigger point for the fight, flight, or freeze response. When these circuits perceive a threat, they flood the body with stress hormones that do several things to prepare us for an emergency. Blood shunts away from the organs to the limbs; that’s the fight or flee. But the response is also cognitive—and, in modern life this is what matters most, it makes some shifts in how the mind functions. Attention tends to fixate on the thing that is bothering us, that’s stressing us, that we’re worried about, that’s upsetting, frustrating, or angering us. That means that we don’t have as much attentional capacity left for whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing or want to be doing. In addition, our memory reshuffles its hierarchy so that what’s most relevant to the perceived threat is what comes to mind most easily—and what’s deemed irrelevant is harder to bring to mind. That, again, makes it more difficult to get things done than we might want. Plus, we tend to fall back on over-learned responses, which are responses learned early in life—which can lead us to do or say things that we regret later. It is important to understand that the impulses that come to us when we’re under stress—particularly if we get hijacked by it—are likely to lead us astray.

Why Should I Care about Flooding?

Flooding causes a major shift in the way you see yourself, the person you are communicating with, and the world.  Your inner peace is shattered, because your metabolism is hijacked. It makes relationships very difficult, because it skews perceptions and alters behaviors.

            The results of being in this constant state of “red alert” are:

  • We tend to catastrophize, everything appears dangerous, bad or wrong: a taillight on the freeway means a multi-car collision is about to happen.  We have one thought of rejection and it feels like the relationship is over
  • Distorted and distressed thought patterns become the norm: we miss-read people’s behaviors, seeing danger or loss or pain
  • We remain vigilant even in peaceful, stress free situations
  • We easily project our fears or judgements on to others and then act as if they are true: Your SO [Significant Other] comes home tired and you project that they don’t love you anymore.  A probation office forgets to return a call, and you get angry and believe the whole system is against you…
  • Thinking errors crop up everywhere like weeds
  • We become easily triggered by subtle “data.” This data can be internal triggers such as body sensations, emotions and thoughts.  Or the trigger can be something we notice outside ourselves, such as the way a bank teller looks at us, the phone rings late at night, someone gives us an unexpected compliment, if our plans change…

All couples have misunderstandings and arguments. The issue is not whether you are arguing with your partner; it’s how that arguing is happening, and whether you and your partner can deal with your emotions and successfully lead to a sense of resolution when it does.


But the Biggest Reason to Care About Flooding Is…

Portrait of  young woman gesturing time out sign
Indeed, there are four types of negative interactions that are so lethal to a marriage that Gottman has labeled them the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse… The third sign that signals a marriage is headed toward divorce is when one partner becomes flooded. “Flooding means that your spouse’s negativity – whether in the guise of criticism or contempt or even defensiveness – is so overwhelming and so sudden, that it leaves you shell-shocked” (Gottman et al 34). Many people protect themselves from feeling flooded by disengaging, or stonewalling. This emotional disengagement can protect one from these intense feelings of negativity, but at the same time it can also lead to divorce. The Fourth Sign: Body Language – Physiological changes in the body that coincide with flooding, such as an increased heart rate, the secretion of adrenalin, and an increase in blood pressure, are the fourth sign that enables Gottman to predict divorce. These physiological changes in the body make it impossible to maintain the discussion. Your ability to process information is reduced, meaning it’s harder to pay attention to what your partner is saying. Creative problem solving goes out the window. You’re left with the most reflexive, intellectually sophisticated responses in your repertoire: to fight (act critical, contemptuous, or defensive) or flee (stonewall) (Gottman et al 37). A problem solving discussion that leads to one or both partners becoming flooded is doomed to fail. Consequently, their problem cannot be resolved. The Fifth Sign: Failed Repair Attempts The fifth sign that a marriage is bound to end in divorce is when one partner’s attempts at repairing the conflict fails. Repair attempts are efforts made by the couple to deescalate the conflict. The “repair attempt” is the happy couple’s secret weapon. This refers to using any method of preventing the negative emotions from spiraling out of control. A repair attempt can be a simple gesture such as a laugh, a smile or an apology; anything that helps the couple ease the tension. However, if one partner is feeling flooded, these repair attempts will be unsuccessful.

Blind with Rage? What to Do When You Are Flooded

STEP ONE in dealing with flooding is tuning into your body to recognize the signs. When you’re flooded, the most primitive part of your brain takes over and hijacks you, and you might:


  • Perspire
  • Feel defensive
  • Feel your heart pound
  • Feel flushed
  • Want to attack your partner verbally
  • Be breathing shallowly
  • Feel intensely angry
  • Find it hard to think clearly
  • Sense your stomach in knots
  • Develop a headache
  • Feel your jaw muscles tighten
  • Stop feeling any empathy for your partner
  • Start feeling trapped
  • Want to escape, to run, or
  • Feel frozen in place
  • Feel the muscles in your body tense up


Doing Time Out Signal with HandsSTEP TWO – the minute you recognize you’re flooded, and before things deteriorate further, JUST STOP!!! Signal a TIME-OUT (agree on a hand signal – the “Time-Out” signal used in sports is a good one). Tell your partner you’re flooded, upset and have to stop and calm yourself.


Once your body starts releasing the fight-or-flight hormones, it takes a good while to calm down so you can come back and be rational as you discuss the issue, and empathic as you listen. Here’s why:


Flooding is a “bio-chemical flood” preparing your body for action.  The chemicals in your body called neurotransmitters, must pass through the neural synapse, be absorbed into the tissues and passed into the urine before heart rate returns to normal.  This process takes 20 minutes.   You will need a 20-minute respite to completely calm down physiologically!  If the stressful situation remains, your heart rate will remain elevated, and your body will pump out adrenaline and your thinking will be clouded.  You will be physiologically reactive even if you “know” a different response is called for.  Most people think they are calm, long before they actually are physiologically calm.


Then immediately STOP:


  • Talking
  • Arguing
  • Shouting
  • Being in the same room


STEP THREE – Now follow this simple system that follows the acronym “SEPARATE,” after you remove yourself from the argument:

S: Signal. Have a pre-arranged signal—a gesture or statement—denoting the need for a time-out; e.g. clamp your hand over your mouth and then say “I’m feeling overwhelmed. I need a time-out. Let’s come back to this in about an hour.”

E: Exit calmly and quietly. Leave the presence of the other person immediately and stay apart for at least thirty minutes.

P: Physical activity. Walk, run, ride a bike, lift weights or do other physical activity to release your body’s pent-up energy. Do not drive. Do not use alcohol or other drugs.

A: Analyze what just happened to FIND: your Feelings, the Issue, your Needs and Desires (and what you think your partner’s desires are regarding this situation). Write about your FIND in your journal.

R: Relax. Use relaxation techniques to soothe yourself— breathe deeply, meditate, pray—do what works for you..

A: Affirm. Affirm yourself and your marriage with positive self-talk. “I’m okay. We can solve this problem. I will be peaceful. I have choices. I choose to stay calm. I’m a good person. We’re going to figure this out. Calm down. Breathe. He (she) is upset right now—this isn’t a personal attack. I’m upset now; I do love him (her). There are lots of things I admire about him (her).” Avoid negative self-talk about yourself or your partner. Negativity escalates tension.

T: Take your pulse. It takes 20 – 30 minutes for an elevated pulse to return to normal. Most people think they are calmed down when their pulse is still 10% above their normal resting rate. To increase the chance of a tranquil re-engagement with your partner after a time-out, take your pulse and wait until you are both feeling “normal.”

E: Engage. Come back together with your partner. Schedule time to again discuss the topic that precipitated the flooding. Agree to discuss the topic again only after you have first experienced a period of normal time together. If it is a particularly volatile or difficult topic, Gottman suggests limiting the discussion to 15 minutes at a time, adding additional 15-minute segments as needed. If you engage too soon, SEPARATE.

Everyone has the capacity to take control of the negative cycles many of us engage in when we fight dirty and are repeatedly flooded. While breaking old habits and creating new ones is not easy, and requires commitment and discipline, it can be done. And the relationship rewards you and your partner will know and feel as a result are priceless.

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