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Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA), or Flooding

Posted March 5, 2010

First and Foremost (Part Two)

This piece is so critical, I cannot overstate it:  simply managing diffuse physiological arousal, or flooding, well in a relationship can make a huge difference. Conversely, frequent recurring flooding is the first step on the Distance and Isolation Cascade leading to emotional disengagement, loneliness and oftentimes divorce.

Through his 35 years of extensive research with over 3000 couples, John Gottman discovered that in ailing relationships there is often heightened physiological arousal for both men and women.  This can create a feeling of unmanageable stress.  Diffuse Physiological Arousal, or DPA, is our body’s general alarm mechanism, inherited through evolutionary means.  The purpose of DPA is to mobilize oneself so that we can effectively cope with crises or emergencies.

Whenever we perceive a threat (and this perception is instantaneous, requiring very little complex or cortical thought), a series of processes automatically happen in the body, preparing one for an emergency.  Our instinctual reaction is to fight or flee.  The heart races, adrenaline courses through our bloodstream, the more complicated process of reasoning shuts down, and we prepare to act – in self-defense.1

Why this is important in relationship? Thousands of years ago, it was the saber-tooth tiger that threatened us; now it’s our spouse.

Consider these facts:
  1. All people experience DPA or flooding.
  2. For physiological reasons, when we are flooded we are unable to communicate effectively.  (I do mean unable.)
  3. We hear and see signals of danger, nothing else.
  4. Trying to communicate when flooded is damaging to any relationship

Talking to anyone we care about – spouse, children, siblings, co-workers – when flooded is destructive. When flooded, we are incapable of listening well.  We are simply waiting for the other person in front of us – who just won’t stop talking! – to pause long enough so we can dive in and set him straight on what the true situation is. We are out to convince or to conquer, not engage in meaningful, give-and-take dialogue.  To have fruitful dialogue, we have to be open to hearing our partner’s point of view; to take it in and hold it dear.

All effective communication skills will be for naught if you continue to engage in the negativity that arises when you’re flooded.

I have a protocol I offer my clients to use when flooded.

The protocol for Flooding is this:
  • Agree upon a non-offensive hand signal.
  • Use it when one or both of you is flooded OR when the conversation between you is deteriorating.
  • Once the signal is given, ALL verbal communication ceases.  Disengage and separate physically.
  • Take time to self-soothe before continuing.
  • The person who calls the time-out is responsible for:
    • Remembering the issue discussed.
    • Returning to your spouse within 30-60 minutes to jointly arrange a time when the two of you can sit down and calmly discuss the disagreement.  Have that second conversation at least an hour and no more than 7 days later.
    • Making sure the second conversation happens, and
    • Setting the tone and procedure for that recovery conversation.
  1. I can’t do justice to this topic in a short blog. For a more indepth understanding of Flooding and its impact on relationships, consider taking an Art and Science Workshop, read The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman (1999), or look into working with a Gottman certified therapist in your area.




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