In relationships, conflicts and disagreements are inevitable. However, when these disputes escalate, they can lead to a phenomenon called “flooding” or Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA). Flooding is a term coined by renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman, describing a state of intense emotional and physiological arousal during conflicts. This article delves into the biological changes that occur during flooding, its causes, and practical techniques to manage and prevent it from harming your relationship.

The biology of flooding

When you experience flooding, your body undergoes a series of physiological changes. Your heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline surge through your system.1 These changes are part of the “fight or flight” response, a primitive survival mechanism that prepares your body to face perceived threats.2

During flooding, the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotional processing, becomes highly activated.3 This heightened amygdala activity can override the prefrontal cortex, the region responsible for rational thinking and problem-solving.4 As a result, you may find it difficult to think clearly, listen effectively, or communicate constructively during conflicts.

Causes of flooding

Flooding can be triggered by various factors, both internal and external. Some common causes include:

  1. Unresolved past traumas or emotional wounds
  2. Chronic stress from work, finances, or family issues
  3. Differences in communication styles or conflict-resolution approaches
  4. Feeling attacked, criticized, or disrespected by your partner
  5. Accumulation of minor irritations and resentments over time5

When these underlying issues are not addressed, they can fuel the intensity of conflicts and increase the likelihood of flooding.

The impact of flooding on relationships

Flooding can have detrimental effects on relationships. When you’re flooded, you may say or do things you later regret, such as lashing out, withdrawing, or saying hurtful things.6 These negative behaviors can erode trust, intimacy, and connection in your relationship.

Moreover, frequent flooding can lead to a vicious cycle of conflict. As you associate your partner with negative emotions and experiences, you may become more reactive and defensive in their presence.7 This heightened reactivity can trigger flooding more easily, perpetuating the cycle.

Managing flooding: The Jacobsonian Relaxation Technique

To break the cycle of flooding, it’s crucial to learn effective relaxation techniques. One such method is the Jacobsonian Relaxation Technique (JRT), developed by Dr. Edmund Jacobson. JRT involves systematically tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in your body to promote relaxation and reduce stress.8

Here’s a step-by-step guide to practicing JRT:

  1. Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  2. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
  3. Starting with your feet, tense the muscles as tightly as you can for 5-10 seconds.
  4. Relax the muscles and focus on the sensation of release and relaxation for 10-15 seconds.
  5. Progressively work your way up the body, tensing and relaxing each muscle group: legs, hips, stomach, chest, back, arms, hands, neck, and face.
  6. After completing the sequence, take a few more deep breaths and enjoy the feeling of relaxation throughout your body.9

Regular practice of JRT can help you manage stress, reduce physiological arousal, and prevent flooding during conflicts.

The importance of taking breaks during conflicts

When you recognize signs of flooding in yourself or your partner, it’s essential to take a break from the conversation. Dr. Gottman recommends separating for at least 20-30 minutes to allow your body’s physiological arousal to subside.10

During this break, avoid ruminating on the conflict or rehearsing arguments. Instead, engage in activities that promote relaxation, such as deep breathing, meditation, or a calming hobby. This “time-out” allows you to regain emotional equilibrium and return to the discussion with a clearer, more rational mindset.

Preventing flooding in your relationship

While managing flooding is important, preventing it altogether is even more beneficial for your relationship. Some strategies to prevent flooding include:

  1. Regularly practicing relaxation techniques like JRT or mindfulness meditation
  2. Engaging in open, non-judgmental communication with your partner about your feelings and needs
  3. Addressing unresolved past traumas or emotional wounds through individual or couples therapy
  4. Cultivating a culture of appreciation, respect, and understanding in your relationship
  5. Learning effective conflict-resolution skills, such as active listening and compromise11

By proactively working on these areas, you can build a more resilient, flood-proof relationship.


Flooding, or Diffuse Physiological Arousal, is a state of intense emotional and physiological reactivity that can occur during relationship conflicts. Characterized by biological changes like increased heart rate and stress hormone levels, flooding can hinder effective communication and problem-solving. Common causes of flooding include unresolved past traumas, chronic stress, and feeling attacked or disrespected by one’s partner. To manage flooding, techniques like Jacobsonian Relaxation and taking breaks during conflicts are recommended. Preventing flooding altogether involves regular relaxation practice, open communication, addressing past traumas, fostering respect, and learning effective conflict-resolution skills. By understanding and managing flooding, couples can build more resilient, harmonious relationships.


[1] Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1992). Marital processes predictive of later dissolution: Behavior, physiology, and health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(2), 221-233.

[2] Cannon, W. B. (1929). Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear and rage. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

[3] Phelps, E. A. (2004). Human emotion and memory: Interactions of the amygdala and hippocampal complex. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 14(2), 198-202.

[4] Arnsten, A. F. (2009). Stress signaling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 410-422.

[5] Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[6] Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.

[7] Gottman, J. M. (1993). The roles of conflict engagement, escalation, and avoidance in marital interaction: A longitudinal view of five types of couples. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61(1), 6-15.

[8] Jacobson, E. (1938). Progressive relaxation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[9] Bernstein, D. A., & Borkovec, T. D. (1973). Progressive relaxation training: A manual for the helping professions. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

[10] Gottman, J. M., & Gottman, J. S. (2008). Gottman method couple therapy. In A. S. Gurman (Ed.), Clinical handbook of couple therapy (4th ed., pp. 138-164). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

[11] Driver, J. L., & Gottman, J. M. (2004). Daily marital interactions and positive affect during marital conflict among newlywed couples. Family Process, 43(3), 301-314.