Maybe it’s a pointed comment from your partner. It could be a look. Or even a certain tone.
But it just sets you off. You can’t help but respond with a harsh comment.
Your partner does the same. And suddenly, things have escalated into a heated argument.
You both walk away feeling angry, frustrated, confused, and disappointed.
Does that sound familiar? That’s because it is a common pattern for couple interactions, and it is all caused by how our brains are wired to protect us for survival.
Your Brain in Survival Mode
That initial comment, look, or tone that triggered your harsh reaction was viewed by your brain as a threat.
That makes sense. Your partner may have threatened your feeling of safety, security, or a number of other things.
But unfortunately, your brain doesn’t just see it as a threat – but as a threat to your very survival.
Sounds crazy, right? But it’s just the way we’re built. Literally.
There’s an almond-shaped area in your brain called the amygdala connected to feelings of fear. It has a crucial job: to keep you safe at all costs.
It’s the part of your brain that is activated if you were, say, being chased by a bear through the forest.
When it sees a threat, it fires immediately – in the blink of an eye – flooding your system with chemicals that enable you to react quickly. It is the catalyst for your fight-or-flight instinct.
And that’s the same exact survival response that is triggered by your partner’s behavior. Your brain knows there is a threat, but it cannot distinguish the different levels of threat.
Rationally, of course, you can see a big difference between running for your life from a predator and an upsetting comment from your partner. One involves your very survival; the other… not so much.
But your system cannot distinguish the difference. So that flood of chemicals rushes into your brain. And you are left angry, frustrated, confused, and disappointed.
But here’s the good news. Now that you understand that pattern, you can take steps to change it.
How to Regain Control of Your Nervous System
I want you to memorize three words: Build in time.
Your amygdala has fired, even though there is no physical threat. You need to give your nervous system time to reset and return to normal.
There are two main ways to do this.
- Breathe deeply.
When your survival instincts are engaged, you’ll notice that your breathing and heart rate quicken. You can help stop this process by taking deep breaths. It calms your nervous system back down again.
If you meditate or do yoga, you may already be familiar with how to breath deeply. Start by letting your breath enter your stomach and then your chest. Count to four as you inhale. Hold that breath for four more counts. Then slowly exhale through your nose for another four.
This is something you can often do without anyone noticing. You’re just taking a few moments to yourself, and it can make a big difference.
But if you are really riled up, you may need to step away and breath deeply for five to 15 minutes to have an impact.
- Don’t respond right away.
If you respond immediately, you’re more likely to still have some of those survival chemicals flowing. Instead, build in time. Wait it out.
When you do, your body has a chance to calm down. You can revisit the topic later when you are able to take a softer tone that engenders safety and connection with your partner.
Waiting doesn’t mean you’re letting your partner off the hook for whatever transpired. It just means you’ll have greater control over yourself when you have the conversation.
It is important to note that it often takes one partner more time to reset their nervous system. You should respect your partner’s process and give them the time needed, even if you are ready to talk now.
In the end, you will both benefit. You’ll feel safer and more connected during your communication, and that will be more likely to lead to a positive result.
You can learn more relationship skills and communication tools in a Houston couples workshop or couples therapy.