There are three little words that your significant other can say to literally make your heart beat faster…. and I don’t mean “I love you” or “Let’s have sex.” No, the three words I’m talking about are “Can we talk?”
If you’ve been in a relationship for any significant amount of time you’ve likely been phased by these three little photon-torpedos. Suddenly, your inner Captain Kirk shouts, “Shields up! Phaser settings set to kill, ready at my command!” On the outside, you probably say something like, “What’s up, Babe?” But you’re willing to go red-alert at the slightest hint of criticism.
The next thing you know, your inner Captain Kirk takes the helm and shouts commands to the brain. “Shut down the Prefrontal Cortex! Hypothalamus — open communication to the Pituitary Gland and get a message to the Adrenal Glands — release adrenaline now! Cerebellum… stand at the ready; we’re going to need you to take over! Scotty, I need more cortisol. Now!” Your heart speeds up; breathing becomes shallow, and blood rushes to your extremities ready to fight or flee.
The good news is that your body is working just as it should. Back in the day of wild beasts and threatening head-hunters, our protective system helped us survive. But that same fight-or-flight system, when activated during a discussion with your significant other, tends to shut down good communication and lead to a full-blown argument.
The Number One Communication Skill
When I work with couples, the number one complaint I hear is “We don’t know how to communicate.” While there are many useful communication tools to be learned, the one that is overlooked and the most important is the one that I’m about to teach you. If you work on developing this skill, it will change the way you communicate… and save you the cost of a trip to a couple’s counselor. Ready? Here it is… you need to manage your physiology. Why? Because when you manage your physiology, you manage your psychology — thereby giving you the opportunity to find solutions to the conflict.
This is Your Brain on Conflict:
When we’re in an argument, our brains become overloaded, and a create a state of emotional flooding. Have you ever tried to walk through a turnstile with more than one person at a time? When you are in conflict, it’s like all of your emotions trying to jam through a turnstile at once. Your brain gets locked up and you can’t think… at least as clearly as you’d like.
When we feel any kind threat, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods our nervous system to help us deal with stress. Unfortunately, it also slows down the “higher-level thinking” part of our brain, which is called the prefrontal cortex or the PFC. One of the primary functions of the PFC is to help control impulses and organize emotional responses. But when the PFC stops working as it should, guess what happens? Our ability to control impulses and emotions goes out the window, and you are unable to regulate the divide between your expectations and reality.
This slowing down of the PFC is a normal function of your body’s defensive strategy. It works perfect for, say, getting out of the way when a car cuts you off in traffic. In that scenario, if you stopped to think about what you should do next you’d likely cause a crash. Instead, your reactionary brain takes over, you slam on the breaks and move out of the way to avoid a disaster.
However, when you’re in a conflict over “whose turn is it to make dinner” or “which direction the toilet paper should go” you need your ability to stay calm and rational. This is why the best communication skill is learning to get your PFC back into a state of higher functioning. In other words, getting back to your right mind.
Here are three things you can do to take back your physiology and re-engage the PFC:
First and most important—Breathe.
When our fight-or-flight system is activated our breathing becomes shallow. Shallow breathing is our bodies way of conserving energy in case we need to run away from a real threat. But because our brains run on oxygen, the shallow breathing slows down the brain’s PFC. Fortunately, we can override automatic response by consciously stopping and take slow, deep breaths. This gets more oxygen to the brain and calms our physiology and keeps the PFC online. Here’s a little life hack: when you are in a conflict, put your hands behind your back and clasp your hands together. By doing this you open up your chest and airflow allowing more oxygen to get to the brain.
Second — Take a break when you feel flooded.
Taking a break from an argument is ok. Many people are afraid that if they take a break, they won’t ever come back and resolve the issue. Additionally, the “fight” mode wants resolution. Without resolution, we feel anxious which causes us to stay in the “fight” mode. Instead, agree to take a break by setting a timer for 15 minutes and then come back to the discussion. During that break do what I call the five-by-five breathing exercise; take a deep breath in for a count of five, hold it for five, and exhale for five. Do this five times. Try it. You will feel a sense of calm after doing this exercise.
Third — Stay grounded… Literally.
Here’s a weird trick: when you find yourself in conflict (and after you have started to breathe), become conscious of the bottoms of your feet. This might sound strange, but it works. Try it right now. Think about how the bottoms of your feet… do you feel them? Are you feeling your feet touch the ground? By becoming aware of the bottoms of your feet, you pull yourself out of the emotional part of your brain and into the awareness of your body. Think of it as a grounding wire. The purpose of a grounding wire is to direct energy away from the appliance so that it doesn’t get damaged by an electrical surge.
The three words “can we talk?” don’t have to throw you into warp speed. Being aware of how your body responds to conflict and practicing the above skills can help you stay in a state of emotional equilibrium and keep your brain from flooding. So the next time you find yourself in conflict, instead of pulling out your phasers, use these tools to help you cultivate good communication. Live long and prosper.
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