We’ve all been there. A conversation with our significant other starts innocently enough. Maybe you’re talking about your day or something that happened at work when a comment, seemingly coming from left field, rubs you the wrong way. Maybe it’s not even what is said but how it is said: a tone, eye roll or perhaps a micro-expression indicating contempt and disapproval. It’s almost unnoticeable, but our extra sensory perception picks it up like a giant satellite dish pointing south. “Wait! What did you just say?!!” It’s as if a switch has flipped: a sudden surge of righteous indignation, layered with bitter contempt and topped off with a healthy dose of dismay and disbelief. ”Oh, no you did not!” Like a sonic boom, expletives exploded, fingers point, gloves are off, and a full-on fight ensues.
Or maybe you’re the type who avoids conflict like the plague. You don’t turn up the volume. Instead, you quietly seethe. “What the hell? Ok, just don’t say anything you’re going to regret,” you think to yourself. Your modus operandi is to leave the scene of the crime as quickly as possible, leaving little evidence you were ever there.
When it comes to conflict, some of us are fighters while others are flyers. It’s easy for our defense mechanisms to engage when two people who have competing needs find themselves in a tug-of-war of egos. But conflict is part of being in a relationship, and learning how to working through conflict is perhaps one of the hardest yet healthiest things a couple can do. Sometimes walking away in the middle of a fight might be most beneficial.
Our brain is in charge of our survival, and most of what the brain does happens at the non-verbal level, what psychologists might refer to as our subconscious. For example, our brains are always on the look out to make sure our systems are functioning; hearts pump blood, lungs breath, stomachs churn… you get the picture. Another thing our brain does is vigilantly look for threat. This part of the brain is often referred to as the “mammalian brain.” It’s something we share with all other mammals, and it has helped our species survive for 200 thousand years.
Because our mammal brain isn’t logical, it’s easy for it to misinterpret conflict as a threat! When this happens, our mammal brain goes to work releasing a massive dose of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol triggers our brains to rush into the natural defense mechanisms of fight or flight.
One of cortisol’s jobs is to shut down non-essential systems like our digestive system and urinary function. But another one of those systems is the part of the brain in charge of higher thinking. While this works great if a lion is chasing us (don’t think about it, just run), it’s not so great when we are trying to communicate with grace and understanding. This is why you see your partner as the enemy rather than the beautiful person who stood before you in times of intimate connection and heartfelt compassion.
In fact, cortisol has been called the Jekyll & Hyde Hormone; when cortisol floods our brains our thinking is hijacked, and we are not ourselves. Our mental narratives change from positive thoughts about our partner to negative cognitive distortions. Our mental Mr. Hyde says things like, “You’re such a bitch, you always get your way!” and “You don’t love me like you used to!” or “I’m always the one doing all the work.” Things then get worse; name calling may ensue, accusations fly, voices get loud and icy glares are thrown like knives towards a target.
Unfortunately, these internal narratives and actions produce more cortisol, and we get caught in a loop of relationship-destroying behaviors. Trying to have a discussion while flooded with cortisol is like trying to drive a car when inebriated with alcohol. It’s not only a bad idea, but it can also be dangerous… at least to your relationship. At this point, it’s a good idea to walk away from the argument and agree to talk about it when you’ve had a chance to cool down.
The next time you and your partner find yourselves Shanghaied by your mammal brain here are some practical ideas for surviving the cortisol flood.
1. Set a timer for 20 minutes: Like alcohol, cortisol has to metabolize out of your system for effect to recede. Cortisol has a half-life of 20 minutes and can take several hours for effect to work its way out of our systems. So a good rule of thumb is to take at least a 20-minute break.
2. Practice self-soothing skills: While you are taking your break, practice meditation, and deep slow breathing. This will slow down the flow and help bring you back to center. If you don’t like doing meditation, there are a lot of great apps out there for guided imagery. It’s a soothing way to take your mind off what’s going on.
3. Drink some water: The brain runs on oxygen; When we are in the fight or flight state our breathing gets shallow, slowing down the oxygen our bodies need. Because water is two parts oxygen, it’s an excellent way to get oxygen into our systems.
4. Grounding: An excellent way to get out of your mammal brain and back into your higher-functioning self is to practice grounding. Grounding is becoming aware of sensations in your body. Scan your body for feelings of awareness. First, become aware of the bottoms of your feet. Be aware of how your clothes feel on your body. Feel where your back meets the chair. Become conscious of your elbows. Focus your attention on your ears. It sounds a little silly, but it works. When you create awareness of how you’re feeling in your body, you signal the mammal brain that it’s ok to let down the defenses.
5. Listen to soft music: Remember, “Music calms the savage beast.” Soft music releases the good feeling chemicals of serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters help dispel the effects of cortisol, signaling to the mammal brain that you’re safe and that the threat is gone.
In the end, Mr. Hyde returns to being Dr. Jekyll after his mysterious potion has worn off. The same applies to you when you are upset. After all, you’re dealing with biology as much as you are emotions. It’s better to walk away in the middle of a fight than it is to make things worse by trying to solve an argument when you’re brain is acting like a hideous beast.