What is it?
Basically speaking, Psychological Flooding is a physiological state in which, due to a perceived threat, our nervous system goes into overdrive. In this state, we lose some of our capacity for rational thought, the more flooded we are, the more our ability to think rationally decreases. This happens because the more primitive part of our brain (brain stem and limbic system) which is responsible for protecting us from perceived threats, takes over and thus there is a significant decrease of activity in our pre-frontal cortex, the region of our brain responsible for higher cognition.
In relationships, this can often result in those ‘lovely’, loud, aggressive fights, where one or both partners in end up hurt and not talking to one another.
What is responsible for this?
The stress response is what is responsible for psychological flooding or emotional hijacking a term coined by relationship expert Dr, Gottman,. The stress response is a natural physiological response which we all experience. Originally, its purpose was to help us detect threats in our environment such as wild animals, which could potentially kills us. While this is no longer the case, the stress response is still necessary and useful as it alerts us off potential threats.
When we encounter (someone with a gun) or imagine a perceived threat (losing our employment), this sets off the stress response, or what is better known as the Flight or fight response. Our hypothalamus, a tiny structure at the base of our brain, sets off our body’s natural alarm system. Messages are sent to our adrenal glands, located on the top of our kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, primarily adrenaline and cortisol.
The main symptom we notice when we experience this Adrenaline rush is increases in heart rate. Adrenaline also elevates our blood pressure and boosts energy supplies (more blood pumping means more oxygen in the event that we need to run). Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in our bloodstream, and enhances our brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues (glucose is essentially our body’s fuel source – again more glucose means more energy to burn in the event that we need to fight or run). Basically, our body is preparing us either defend ourselves, or run away.
Cortisol is also responsible for controlling bodily functions that would be unnecessary or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. For example, it increases our immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system processes. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.