Young boy with star sunglasses and guitar

“Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast.” –William Congreve

In Canada during the late 80s, a brief health-oriented commercial break was broadcast during regular television programming. In the “Body-Break, ParticipACTION” clips, a male-female team (who later married) offered quick and easy tips for healthy living, including breaks from TV encompassing stretches, exercises ,and healthy life-style choices. These clips were good reminders to reconnect with the world around me, and I found it refreshing to get out of the trance, or automatic routine. Taking a break is also a key ingredient in healthy relationships—the ability to step back and regroup when emotions run high and you get stuck in reruns of the same negative patterns.

In relationships, parenting, and when dealing with life stress (including addictions and compulsive behaviors), your mind can become overwhelmed and switch to instinctive reactivity, what John Gottman calls “emotional flooding.” A certain threshold of emotions is the trigger for the survival instinct to take control; the fight, flight, or freeze reaction takes over and the thinking brain is overruled. Some people become upset and argue (“fight”); others withdraw (“flight”); others go silent, feeling hurt (”freezing”). For some, a sure sign of flooding is yelling, storming out, or sudden name-calling–all attempts by the survival instinct to stop the interaction because danger is sensed. Communicating does not usually go very well once one or both people are flooded as this instinctive reaction is meant for life or death struggle ,not the demands of relationships. A common cause of flooding for couples is an emotional discussion, an argument that gets heated (feeling like a personal attack). The problem with flooding is that, if it happens often enough, you can become hypervigilant, seeing any comment your spouse makes as a personal attack. The more vigilant you become, the more minor issues can set off an argument, increasing the confused, overwhelmed feelings. A self-fulfilling loop is created as you then look for signs of “attack,” when normally you might ignore comments, looks, or thoughts. This negative feedback loop leads to re-writing your relationship, seeing the exception (your wife goes out one a night a week with friends) as the rule (“You always go out, you’re so selfish!”) and ignoring relationship repair attempts. It can also lead to rewriting your past–looking back in time and reinterpreting past memories to reinforce current feelings (Gottman). When the survival instinct takes over, nothing is sacred.

Recognizing cues (becoming silent, fuming, clenching teeth, becoming critical of your partner, using “always” or “should,” being unable to let a comment go) is the first step. From here, stepping back and taking a break in order to regroup a short time later can make the difference between being stuck in what Sue Johnson (of EFT–Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples fame) calls the “demon dialogues”—an escalating cycle of negative, critical, and contemptuous engagement (like name calling), and a healthy disagreement which allows couples to air their complaints. Taking a self-soothing break will help you reconnect emotionally. It is not about avoidance, stonewalling, or never talking about sensitive issues. Rather, it is a recognition that no real talk can occur when two people are escalated emotionally; calming is needed in order to return to emotional connectivity. Then you can talk.

Approaching your self-soothing break the right way is essential. If you take a break and simply replay what was said and how your partner offended you, you will return to your spouse just as tense and upset as you left—ready to defend yourself, attack your partner’s ideas, or be hurt. Instead of seeing your partner’s tone, words, and body posture as a personal attack, see it as “underlining”—as a way of strngly emphasizing what he or she is feeling (Gottman). This shift in understanding means that even if there are zingers (“Go ahead and walk out, you never change”) it does not mean you are being treated like a doormat and thus need to defend or attack (cue the instinctive reaction). Instead, see you partner as making an emotional statement which you want to hear but need to take a break first in order to deal with the flooding.

Guidelines for taking a calming break:

  1. Give yourself permission: It is better to self-soothe and regroup than say hurtful things to each other, just be clear of your motives when breaking. Do talk over how to break and regroup–create some shared cues–neutral words or phrases. Talking this over with your partner beforehand avoids him or her thinking that your need to break is avoidance or a passive-aggressive way of fighting.
  1. Take a calming break and self-soothe: Make a cup of tea or go out and buy one. Coffee shops are popular for a reason; they are an oasis from the hustle and bustle of life. Plan on taking about 20 minutes if upset; this is how long it takes the average person’s blood pressure and body functions to return to normal. (See below for more ideas on how to take a break)
  1. Manage Distress-Maintaining Thoughts: Emotions are wired to keep themselves going, this applies particularly to the fight, flight, or freeze limbic system reaction, which require anger, fear, or hurt to keep going (useful in a fight with a wild animal). Recognize the thoughts that justify, escalate, and reinforce emotional flooding and see them pass by like scenery on a train. “Innocent Victim” and “Righteous Indignation” are the two main forms that distress-maintaining thoughts take. If you feel yourself in either role, release your grasp on these thoughts. You can use alternative in place of automatic ones. For example, bring to mind the times you and your partner successfully overcame a disagreement. What did that look like? Look at reasons why you are upset or your partner seems curt–“She worked night shift and is probably really tired.” There may be unexplored core beliefs beneath thoughts of justified anger or victim-hurt. Counselling can help bring these underlying inner definitions to the light of day so that you are not at their mercy.
  1. Reconnect with your partner: (See previous blog on relationship repair skills). Don’t leave the argument as unfinished business and also don’t try to hammer away at an issue with the same tone. Breaking and then avoiding the issue create emotional distance, which can be damaging (see my blog on gridlocked problems). The goal is emotional reconnection. Do talk about the issue when both of you are calm and connected.
  1. There is nothing like a little peace to help you connect: See taking a break, calming, and reengaging as being like a new set of dance steps. They will feel uncomfortable at first, even canned or corny. With practice, these steps can become the default pattern when emotions rise. Leaving things up to chance often leaves you or your partner trying to out-emotion each other, as the goal of the flooding-survival reaction is to quiet or subdue a threat. There may be significant issues to talk about in your relationship but the paradox is that when you hammer away at, or for others distance from any conversation about touchy issues, you only increase the flooding, reinforcing the negative feelings. Calming and connecting can go a long way to change how you feel about perpetual issues.

It is hard to learn where the exits are when a fire hits, which is where fire drills come in. It is hard to think of how to respond appropriately when defensive, hurt, or critical. Select a few options you can readily use and practice beforehand so you and your partner are both comfortable with the route.

Suggestions for taking a break:

  • Do a slow stretch routine or some calming yoga
  • Breathe: breathing deeply to the bottom of your lungs will bring your body out of the fight, flight or freeze zone and back to its normal level. See yourself in a calm place, like a green spot by a refreshing mountain stream.
  • Read a good book, do some yard work; check your vehicles oil, fluids, tires.
  • Meditate or pray; use mindfulness to focus on a task like washing the dishes, paying attention to each intricate detail with your full awareness.
  • Go for a bike ride (avoid driving if you drive with anger)
  • Listen to Music* (Music that calms rather than activates you emotionally). There is more and more evidence that music may be as effective as therapy for dealing with some issues. Play music.

A few years ago I worked with a couple in their eighties who were retired musicians. In the course of their marriage they had developed a great calming strategy: getting out their instruments and playing. One would listen while the other played; this break allowed them to reconnect positively later. As they aged, arthritis made this strategy frustrating, and their arguments began to escalate, leaving them both feeling upset and confused. I helped them find a similar way of taking a break and regrouping by watching music videos on the internet. It worked well for them. Finding your own unique pattern for calming when emotionally flooded is the goal. Watch the video below, Beethoven’s 5 Secrets by ThePianoGuys, and see if it helps you soothe when flooded: