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Hate those nasty confrontations that only upset you? There’s a better way to handle conflict.

Last month I promised to write more about physiological self-soothing. Staying calm while in an emotional or heated conversation with those you love can be a very hard thing to do.

If you are having a problem calming yourself in order to talk rationally to your partner, it is best to stop the discussion and have an agreed upon hand signal or words like “ tornado watch,” “ flooding,” or “ I need a break” to acknowledge that you are feeling physiologically-flooded.  While in that defensive, panicky position, often the heart rate is elevated, the blood is pumping, you might be sweating.

That physical reaction is your body warning that you’re about to step into a dangerous situation. A spouse’s facial expression or tone of voice can be enough to sound the alarm.  All this can take just a second. Often  people tell me that when they walk in the door or call their spouse on the phone and hear tension or coldness, they start to feel pressure in their body. 

They start an internal dialogue that goes something like this: 

  • “This evening is not sounding good!”
  • “My spouse is angry, and I might be in trouble.”
  • “There is no rest or relaxation on the horizon for me this evening.”

At the onset of these difficult interactions, your amygdala, which is a very small almond-shaped neural structure in the brain, starts to fire, and you feel the “fight or flight” urge. But most importantly, there is a perceptual narrowing and focused attention on that word your spouse just said, or the irritable tone with which he or she started the conversation. Bottom line, you stop absorbing the information as you normally would, and the conversation is about to go out of control. 

What can you do to avoid a conflict that you and your spouse will regret?

First, name what is happening and the emotions you are feeling. That, in itself, is a powerful tool to calm yourself.  At times people tell me, “I can’t stop this, I can’t control my reactions.” That is a self-defeating way to look at the situation. In fact, emotions are chemicals, and they last in the brain for six seconds. Tell yourself you do have a choice to remain calm, compose yourself and collect your thoughts. 

Here are some other ways to keep cool in these combative situations: 

  • Focus on your breath. You want your breathing to be rhythmic and slow, not shallow or rapid. Try this meditative exercise: breathe in for the count of four, hold for the count of four, exhale for four.
  • Relax your muscles one at a time. Squeeze a muscle, hold for two seconds, then relax. Allow feelings of warmth to replace the tension.
  • Think of a favorite place, maybe a childhood home or a vacation spot that made you feel safe, calm and relaxed. Maybe you and your spouse remember a vacation where you both felt connected and close.
  •  Spend 20-30 minutes in that relaxed state. Research shows it takes about that long to truly relax.
  • Exercise is a good way to release tension. Try running, swimming or yoga.
  • When conflict knocks, try to remember how your body reacts.  For me, signs of stress are shortness of breath and pressure on my chest. It’s very helpful to learn you own physiological stress signals and to know which of these techniques offer relief.
  • After you feel calm, return to your spouse and try to have the conversation again. I’m confident you will have more success this time. And remember, it takes time and practice to learn to manage conflict, and physiological self-soothing is a tool to help you do just that.

Keep practicing. You will appreciate  the improvement in all your relationships.

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