Ever have a fight with your significant other that goes from zero to 60 on the out-of-proportion scale in no time? You’re not alone. Pretty much every human couple has experienced this exponential catapulting of emotions if they’ve ever fought.
And no, it’s not because women are overly emotional and men are quick to get angry. It’s because as humans, our brains are programmed to jump on the offensive or defensive if we feel we’re being threatened or attacked.
We all have two amygdalae on either side of our brains that are responsible for our emotions, survival instincts and memory. They’re like our body’s “smoke detector,” which is a pretty spot-on analogy coined by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score.
Think about what happens in those scary moments when you almost fall, or get into a car accident or even just have to give a speech on a stage. Your body physically reacts in a number of ways. Some feel a wave of nausea hit them that’s often accompanied by sweaty palms and shallow breathing. Others might get super lightheaded and feel hot all of a sudden. Those reactions are created by the hormones your body excretes when it’s preparing itself for fight or flight. And they’re all thanks to our little “smoke detectors” that sounded the fear alarm and put your body on high alert.
Those same reactions can happen when you and your partner get into a spat. If you start to feel like the argument is threatening you emotionally, mentally or physically, your amygdala sets off this chain reaction of responses over which you have absolutely no control. It’s totally instinctual and doesn’t just make you sweaty and flustered.
One automatic neurological reaction our amygdala triggers is that it shuts down the pathway to the prefrontal cortex, which in turn disorients us. This makes it a lot harder to make complex decisions or to consider someone else’s point of view. That’s why a truly heated argument can lead to the almost infantile point of “I’m right because you’re wrong.” And let’s face it — no disagreement can be solved with that kind of logic.
This same cerebral trigger can also affect our memory, making it hard for us to remember what really happened in a situation — or anything good about our argument opponent, for that matter. The instinctive brain response locks us down so efficiently that we remember only two things: to fight and to protect ourselves.
So what can you do when you feel your amygdala taking over? Believe it or not, there are ways to reprogram your brain so it doesn’t jump so quickly to that knee-jerk reaction of fight and protect.
1. Disagree with the automatic response to the threat
Simply put, don’t let your amygdala be the boss of your actions. When you start to feel it kicking into gear because of a real (or perceived) threat, try saying “no” to it and act counter to the instinct. Easier said than done, right? Yes, it may not work the first few times, but the more aware of it you become, the easier it will be to reverse its gears (there has to be a meditation for this, right?).
2. Be hyperaware of your actions
As stated above, an “amygdala hijack”, as it’s often called, usually comes with a whole host of physical symptoms. The best way to halt their effect on you is by noticing them in your body and actively stepping back from them. If you’re having trouble seeing them yourself, try to familiarize your partner with your fight-or-flight tells, and come up with a signal to alert you to their presence. For example, my parents use the code word “blam.”
3. Forget the argument for a second
One effect of the amygdala overdrive is a narrowing of your perception, which in turn leads to those fun “you’re wrong!” “no, you’re wrong!” fights. Perhaps one of the hardest things to do in these moments is to take yourself out of the fight and look at the bigger picture. One thing that’s helped me a lot with this is to take a moment, listen to the last thing I or my partner just said and reply with a general question, like “what are we talking about?” This usually leads to us having a good laugh, which immediately reverses the fear trigger.
4. Label your feelings
This is a technique that’s been around for centuries and is often used by psychiatrists to help their patients deal with the emotions they’re feeling. The theory is that if you can step back and label what’s going on with you emotionally, it helps you normalize those feelings, and they affect you less.
Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman studied this relabeling effect on 30 individuals’ brains. They were shown pictures of people experiencing specifically strong emotions, and when they attached labels to the emotions, researchers noted a significant decrease in their amygdala response. So while it may feel silly to do in the heat of an argument, it has proven to quell those instinctual reactions.
Of course, it might take several tries for any of these methods to really help stop amygdala hijacking from happening midargument, but don’t give up. The more mindful you are of your body’s reactive tendencies, the easier it will be to stop them in their tracks and effectively put out an argument fire.