My last post was an all-about-the-brain info session.  Today I want to look at how that info can be applied in relationships, specifically during arguments.  Because we've all had an argument go really badly, and probably would like to try to not do it again.

So, just to refresh our memories...the brain can be separated into three big parts - old brain, midbrain, and new (frontal cortex) brain.  The old brain is sometimes called the reptilian brain, because it controls all our most primal processes...breathing, blinking, sex drives, heart beats, etc.  The midbrain houses our emotion center, among many other things, and is largely where our emotions live and are monitored and processed.  The frontal cortex is our most evolved portion of the brain, where cause-effect, logical analyses, decision-making, and impulse control all exist.

So why is any of this relevant to today's topic of arguments?  Well, consider the last big argument you had with someone, a loved-one perhaps.  Did you get so flustered you couldn't make your point?  Did you say something you regret?  Were you upset by how the argument ended?  Hours later, did you wish you had done things differently?  All of these scenarios can be explained by your brain and body's response to the act of arguing.

As the argument began, did you notice your heart started to beat faster?  Did you feel warmer, more uncomfortable?  That is your body's response to intense emotion, be it fear, anger, hurt, or whatever.  As you experience the fear/anger/hurt, your brain does a very primal thing.  It feels threatened.  And while this kind of threatened (fear/anger during an argument) isn't the same as the kind of threatened you would feel if a large predator were staring you down, your brain doesn't really distinguish the difference.  So, your brain, feeling in danger, resorts to primal responses like fight/flight/freeze.  In order for your brain to "save you" from the danger, it accesses the deep, old brain that just reacts to the threat...and in doing this, it pretty much turns off the frontal cortex.  You can't react if you are weighing cause and effect, and you certainly can't flee if your frontal cortex is controlling your impulses.

So, think about your argument.  What happens when you are arguing with someone and you no longer have access to your rational, decision-making brain?  What's going to happen if your only choices are fight/flight/freeze?  This is why we so commonly either lash out, run away from or avoid the argument, or just kind of shut down all together.  Our brains are telling us that that's the only way we'll survive!  When you say something hurtful you later regret, that's your "fight" instinct.  When you "just have to get out of here", that's your "flight" instinct.  And when you go into systems overload, and sit, like a stone, just nodding along while your partner yells...that's your freeze instinct.  Your brain is trying to protect you...but it's no way to communicate, and has probably gotten you into trouble at some point.

The trick then, is to get your frontal cortex turned back on.  The first, and most important, step is to calm down. This is why many therapists tell their couples to take time-outs when arguments get too heated.  Yet, most couples would report that time-outs don't work.  Why?  Because in reality, the body/brain needs a solid 20-30 minutes before it can really calm down and reengage the frontal cortex, and many people find it difficult to put an argument on hold for that long.  But 20-30 minutes is a minimum that is necessary.  Doctors report that it can take up to 3 hours for cortisol (the stress hormone) to fully return to normal levels after we get agitated.  This is why I don't subscribe to the "don't go to bed angry" belief.  Sometimes, it's just too late and you are just too tired to be constructive - so go to bed, things will look better in the morning and you will have had time to calm down.  Time-outs and "fleeing" are different things though, a time-out means you intend to return to the argument when you are calmer, "fleeing" means you have no intention of having the argument, ever.

There are tons of ways to calm down and everyone needs to find what works for them, but a great way to start the process is by removing yourself from the person with whom you've been arguing.  Don't go vent to anyone, that will just keep you riled up.  Go for a walk, take deep, slow breaths, play with a pet, watch your fish swim in their tank, listen to soothing music, pay attention to things happening around you, connect to the world with your five senses.  All of these things are just ideas, take them or leave them, but all of them will help soothe you and bring you back to a more relaxed state.  Find what works for you.

When you are calm, and thinking clearly, address the problem.  But always, always keep in mind, "What am I trying to accomplish?"  What is the point of the argument?  Are you trying to communicate that you've been hurt?  That there is a problem in the relationship that needs to change?  That you need something from this person?  Stick to the point, and don't let yourself get sidetracked.  Stay in frontal cortex land of impulse control and rational decision-making.  If your goal is to hurt the other person, to inflict damage, to win, you either haven't given yourself enough time to calm down, or this is a person you might reconsider having in your life.

It takes practice to have calm discussion-like arguments, and for some, it may just not be possible.  With time, and practice, it will get easier though.  We all make mistakes, and then there are some out there who really don't mind a big explosive argument.  So a final step I will recommend is the after-the-argument conversation.  When the argument is long finished - revisit the topic to make sure both parties felt heard.  If the argument got out of hand, REPAIR.  Apologize, forgive, explain feelings and own up to mistakes.  John Gottman, a very well-respected couples therapy researcher and therapist who I will one day probably do an entire post about, would argue that the repair after the argument is the most important step of all.  I tend to agree.  Don't leave a hurtful, explosive argument unresolved - it will only become fuel for the fire.

What do you think?  I'd be very interested in your feedback!