Have you ever had a rush of energy after hearing a loud voice in the vicinity? Or when the person in front of you slams on their brakes?
That’s fight or flight at work.
The same happens when an argument becomes overheated. This is when your heart starts pounding and all the other physical stress reactions happen.
The consequences for communication are disastrous. Your ability to process information is reduced, and it’s ten times harder to pay attention to what your partner is saying.
Do You Know the Feeling?
One of the most apparent physical reactions to danger is that the attacked person’s heart speeds up dramatically. It pounds away at over 100 beats per minute, and goes as high as 165.
That’s more than double a normal blood pressure. Cortisol levels in your body rise dramatically.
In such a state, creative problem solving (as well as any potential win-win scenarios) go right out of the window. You’re left with the most reflexive and least intellectual responses in your repertoire: fight (show contempt, criticize, dispense sarcasm, ) or flee (stonewall).
Any chance of resolving the issue is gone. Most likely, the continuation of the discussion will just worsen matters.
Do you know the feeling?
When you’re upset, your amygdala—the ancient part of the brain that’s responsible for the fight or flight response—has taken over full control. Your body starts to produce vast quantities of adrenaline and you’re being flooded with cortisol.
- Your heart starts pumping
- Your feel a rush of blood to your face
- Your face gets reddish and warmer
- You feel a squeezing or spinning sensation in your chest or in your stomach
- You start breathing more quickly
- Your hands may start sweating
When you see any of the signs of an emotional tornado coming, it’s super important for you stop the conversation and calm down.
Why would you want to do that?
The Tiger Phenomenon
There are three strong reasons why you want to pull the plug of the conversation if you get upset.
Let’s first tackle the more obvious two:
- When you’re super angry you won’t hear anything your spouse is saying anyway; it’s as if you are completely deaf. So, for the sake of argument, try imagining yourself fighting that sabertooth tiger (or better yet, getting the hell out of his way as fast as you can). Do you imagine yourself talking calmly at the same time? I guess not. You have other things to do.
- More often than not, kids are watching. If they watch this happening too often, they unconsciously start forming the same pattern themselves for when they grow up. You probably don’t want that.
But there’s a third reason, and to my mind, it’s the most important one.
Back when our ancestors were chasing mammoths across the frozen tundra, cortisol was key to staying alive. Its role was to prepare the body to defend itself or get away.
That still is true today.
Except that nowadays, instead of running from a giant sabertooth tiger, we’re being almost exclusively chased by our own negative emotions. Unfortunately, our unconscious mind-–the amygdala—doesn’t know the difference.
- If things get out of control frequently, your brain starts to associate your partner with danger, the same way our ancestors associated a tiger with danger. That’s why I call this the tiger phenomenon.
How to Pull The Plug
So, when an argument becomes overheated, your first goal is to avoid saying or doing things you might later regret. The easiest way to do this is by using any of the below stop sentences:
- “I need to calm down. Would you give me a minute?”
- “Let’s take a break; I need to calm down.”
- “I feel tension between us and I don’t want us to start arguing. Let me think about it and let’s talk again later. Is (propose the time) good for you, or would you prefer some other time?”
- “I feel (upset, offended, sad) now.”
- “I don’t think this is going in the right direction. Let’s talk about it later. What about when the kids go to bed?”
- “I would like us to continue this conversation, but I need to calm down as right now I am starting to get upset. Can we do it this evening, or maybe tomorrow evening?”
- “Can we take a break? I’m starting to get upset now.”
- “I’m sorry but I’m getting far more upset than I would like. I think it will be better for both of us if we continue this conversation later. How about tomorrow morning, while we take a walk together?”
- “I hear what you’re saying, and it’s not that I want to run away, but I’m getting upset now. Can we talk later?”
After saying this, beware!
No further arguing, no comments, even at half volume. And no door slamming! Politely resist letting your spouse suck you back into an already heated conversation.
We all want to solve our problems fast
and, especially until you are used to this process, your partner might misunderstand this withdrawal as fleeing. Therefore, it pays to explain calmly not only why you are pausing, but also to reassure your partner that you WILL come back, and you won’t forget. Better so, ask if it’s okay with them.
Admittedly, this takes quite a bit of self-discipline. But it pays off immensely.
Your Own Endorphins Can Help
After our amygdala has been set off, our brain simply needs some time to reboot. Different people need different amounts of time to calm down. Interestingly, it has been scientifically proven that men generally need more time than women.
Either way, don’t rush.
You can speed up the time needed to restart your brain by moving your body. I mean literally moving your legs and arms and doing something with them, not moving your fingers over the screen of your phone.
That’s because when you move, your brain releases neurochemicals called endorphins. They have a soothing effect on your mind and make you feel good.
- Go for a walk
- Mow the lawn
- Start putting dishes in the dishwasher
- Do the laundry
- Go out, throw a ball with the kids
Basically, do anything that makes your body move.
I wouldn’t suggest going shopping to calm down, (at least not every time) if you don’t want to anchor yourself into spending money every time you need to calm down. Because if you do that on a consistent basis, your brain will make the connection: angry–shopping–buying nice things for me–pleasure–let’s get angry some more!