Have you ever tried to resolve a conflict when tempers are ignited?
If you have, you may have learned that any attempt to resolve an issue with a partner once someone is triggered into a fight-flight-freeze reaction is like trying to put out a fire by throwing gasoline on it. You'll do more damage than good because the part of your brain designed for battle and survival has taken over.
To Stop Reactivity, Find Your Brakes
Whenever you realize that one or both of you are triggered, find a way to stop. Find your brakes — or develop some! Brakes is a metaphor used by neurobiologists to describe how the safety (parasympathetic) circuit of the nervous system can counter-balance the acceleration of the fight-or-flight (sympathetic) circuit. When the latter is triggered, just like an accelerator, it speeds up our heart and pumps energy into our limbs for battle or escape. The braking function of our nervous system reverses this, slowing down our heart rate and returning us to a condition in which we can engage in healthy communication.
Having good brakes means that we can converse more slowly and consciously about an issue. Our higher brain remains in charge, so we can take into consideration what our partner says, even if it is different than our experience. We feel no need to interrupt or correct them. Our higher brain is continuously and automatically reassuring us that we are safe — and that it's safe to show vulnerable feelings and needs.
To the extent we have strong wiring and connectivity from our higher brains back into our alarm system, we have good braking ability. This downward connection from our higher brains to our "survival brain" is originally supposed to be hooked up in our childhood attachment training before the age of two. The more consistently we were nurtured by our caregivers when we were distressed, the stronger our downward wiring will be. This is called secure attachment.
Those of us who get easily triggered don't have strong enough brakes in our brains. Childhood attachment training did not hook up sufficient neural connections to enable us to realize we are actually safe. So now our alarm systems accelerate too quickly. With our underdeveloped brakes, we fly too easily into fight, flight or freeze.
How do we improve our automatic braking system? By applying our manual brakes as a way of strengthening the neural connections that will eventually make triggering events less likely to occur.
Whenever you realize you or your partner are triggered, find a way to pause or slow down your communication. Then find a way to reassure each other you are actually safe.
You can say "I need to pause." Or say something equivalent, such as, "Can we slow down for a moment?" or "I'm getting triggered." (But whatever you say, do not say to your partner something like, "I see YOU are getting triggered.")
"I Need to Pause"
The point of pausing is to insert a new choice into what is otherwise an automatic accelerating sequence of reactive behaviors. You are trying to interrupt the unconscious survival reaction of your nervous system. Then you can recognize that you are actually safe, that your survival is not at stake here.
Saying "I need to pause" is the same as saying: "My higher brain is getting hijacked, and I can't even really hear you. I'd like to return to this topic after we calm down."
Develop a Shorthand Signal
Typically, you won't be able to say those wise words when you're triggered. You simply don't have enough higher brain power when the primitive part of your nervous system kicks in. That’s where a shorthand word or simple phrase like "I need to pause" comes in handy. Use a signal that will be distinct and obvious even when you have lost 90% of your IQ points.
How Long Do You Pause?
The length of time you need to pause will vary. It depends on how quickly you can calm your nervous systems down and return to knowing you are safe together. A big factor in how long it takes to calm down is how high you have let your states of activation escalate. The quicker you recognize that you or your partner are triggered and put a halt to it, the quicker you can recover.
Ideally you would notice those familiar signs of fight-flight-freeze right away and ask for a pause. But if you don’t recognize this until you’re both triggered to higher levels of activation, you may need to Pause for much longer than if you stopped right away. You may need an hour or more to calm down.
Beware of continuing too soon. Research shows that if couples try to continue talking about a topic before they calm down and soothe themselves, they can quickly escalate to even higher levels of fight-or-flight, where even more damage gets done. Nervous systems need adequate time to discharge fear and allow safety circuits to be back in charge.