Arguing? Take a Time Out.

Do you get “flooded” during arguments?

Dr. David Penner, Clinical Director at the Gottman Institute (home of relationship experts, and The Love Lab), gave a presentation in Seattle at the annual biofeedback conference.  He shared their research on the physiological changes that occur when couples are having disagreements:

When your heart rate goes above 168 beats/min during an argument, you are “flooded”.

This results in:

  • impaired hearing
  • tunnel vision (literally –  your peripheral vision decreases)
  • difficulty processing information
  • finding it harder to give / receive attention
  • harder to be polite / courteous
  • repeating yourself    (“summarizing yourself syndrome”)
  • less empathy

When flooded individuals take a 20 minute time out to calm their physiology toward baseline levels (to do this they have to avoid replaying any distress-maintaining thoughts), their resumed disagreement is dealt with so much more productively – “as if they had brain transplants”.

Self calming during an argument has dramatic effects!

The Institute has found that the optimal heart rate for relational interactions is below 100 beats/min.

Couples in counselling sessions at the Institute wear a pulse oximeter (heart rate monitor) during their discussions and interactions.  The oximeters are set to ring at a threshold of 100 beats/min.  When they ring, it’s time to take a self calming break.

After Dr. Penner mentioned this, a lively discussion ensued about the possibilities of using mobile device apps to monitor our heart rate during everyday interactions with loved ones.  What do you think about using this kind of biofeedback to signal when you’re flooded?

When you’re flooded, it’s worth a time out.


For effective, practical stress management skills that enhance health and performance, check out the Stress Management & High Performance Clinic programs at

Kathy Somers, R.Kin, BCB


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