Ever reflect on an argument and ask yourself, “What on earth was I thinking when I said that?!”
Ever reflect on an argument and ask yourself, “What on earth was I thinking when I said that?!” Well, the field of social neuroscience is providing answers to help us understand our outbursts. Our brains have two almond-shaped masses called amygdalae that are in charge of processing our emotional reactions. The amygdalae regulate our fight or flight response, which was created as a survival mechanism to allow us to react quickly to stimuli before giving our rational brain time to interpret the stimuli. In critical situations, our amygdalae respond in as little as twelve thousands of a second, which is exactly what you want it to do if faced with a serious threat like having a gun drawn on you. So how do the amygdalae impact our arguments?
Well, in addition to saving us in serious situations, our amygdalae can also get us into serious trouble with coworkers and loved ones. These little parts of our brain have the ability to override the prefrontal cortex, which controls our logical, analytical thought processes. In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman coined the term “amygdala hijack,” referring to the ability of our amygdalae to literally hijack our rational thought. And as you can well imagine, this can make it all too easy to have an emotional outburst before we take the time to fully process information.
So let’s recap and picture a scenario we’ve all experienced before. You’re arguing with your partner and he or she says something that causes you to feel a strong emotion, anxiety, anger, or betrayal. Beneath the surface, your amygdalae override the prefrontal cortex, causing your emotions to overwhelm your rational thought, causing you to have an overwhelming impulse to say something that you may instantly regret. So does this mean we’re powerless to these two tiny parts of our brain? Hardly. Here are three simple tips to practice next time you’re feeling heated:
1. Count to ten before responding. You likely heard this from your mother when you were five years old, and now there is neurological research supporting mom’s advice. Giving yourself the opportunity to cool off for a few seconds when you feel triggered teaches your neocortex how to control the immediate response of the amygdalae, allowing you to take the time to respond rather than react.
2. Don’t make decisions when you’re upset. When you’re emotional, the right hemisphere of your brain dominates so the left hemisphere, which is in charge of rational analysis and problem solving, is unable to function properly. This is why it is difficult to think logically or recall details when you are distraught. So it’s best not to make any decisions (like whether to end or continue the relationship) at a time when your right hemisphere is in charge.
3. Come up with a “cool-off” phrase. Practice what you’ll say next time you feel yourself heating up. For example, you might say “I need a moment to think about this” or “I need a glass of water” in a calm, controlled tone instead of potentially escalating the conflict by saying something like “You’re so obnoxious!” By training yourself to say your cool-off phrase you will buy yourself precious time to cool off while also deescalating potential conflict.
In any relationship, it’s important to think before you speak, act, or respond. Our words and actions carry significant weight and we have the power and ability to not only understand, but to control our outbursts. Practicing these three simple tools will allow you to overcome that overwhelming impulse to say something that may cause great hurt to your partner and your relationship.