We all have limits, metaphorical boiling points if you will. You surely remember, those moments when in any relationship your friend or partner is continually toying with lighting a match and turning on the burner underneath you. Maybe it shows up as your friend will not back off from challenging your political ideas or your availability to attend their bachelor party the same weekend as an important event scheduled at work. Perhaps it shows up as your partner reminds you to put the dishes away, pick up your laundry from the floor or pay bills after you have had a trying day at the office.
Such moments are often described as frustrating or intense and can contribute to overall stress. Let's say your base layer of stress is already at a 7 out of 10, it doesn't take much for someone to turn up the heat another notch. What happens next?
In my experience clinically, the most common reactions I see are a combination of something in between these scenarios:
The feeling many people describe as "I just cannot take it anymore!" comes over and then you explode at your partner, yelling at them and perhaps saying things you do not mean that are hurtful. This fighting continues and creates tension which then becomes distance between you both.
The presence of negative self-talk "I can't do anything right" emerges as we draw away from the relationship and blame ourselves, internally sulking and de-sensationalizing. This type of conflict might appear as one or both people become reclusive or initiate the silent treatment.
So maybe you identify your own pattern of dealing with conflict, however similar or different from these examples. Now return to your boiling point, remember what that felt like. What's happening within you right now?
Neurologically, here's what is actually happening in your brain and why it might be hard to communicate clearly...
There are two areas in our brain that are centrally activated during our interactions of conflict - the limbic area or emotional brain, which includes the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Within the limbic system, our amygdala appears petite, yet it can have a powerful impact as it is responsible for responding to fear and rage. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) orchestrates thoughtful decision-making abilities and is our source of reasoning and good judgement.
When we are in the midst of an argument with a partner or friend, perhaps fearful of what may come of the interaction or we become angered by the threat of feeling attacked, our amygdala reacts and takes charge. Simply put, our emotional brain takes over making it very difficult for us to communicate clearly to our partners and friends. This makes sense because thoughtfulness in this moment would require sufficient PFC functioning. Mona Fishbane, PhD., clinical psychologist and family therapist, describes this limbic area activation as "the low road" of reactivity and the PFC activation as "the high road" of thoughtfulness in her application of neuroscience to her psychotherapy work and in her book, Loving With The Brain in Mind, which is an excellent resource for couples.
So, in order for us to decrease reactivity and increase thoughtfulness during moments of conflict, the PFC must communicate with the amygdala to calm it down (the brain is wired for this process to occur). We can activate this process in our PFC by engaging in calming behaviors - think diaphragmatic/deep breathing, meditation, a short walk, time to recollect, reflection, releasing tears, calming thoughts.
When we engage in calming behaviors during intense moments where our emotional brain has taken over and our PFC has gone off-line, we can actually open the pathway of communication between our PFC and amygdala, bringing our PFC back online. While these processes take time to learn and integrate into our daily lives, they are effective with the right amount of coaching and support. Perhaps you may find psychotherapy to be a useful outlet.
The Power of Choice
Now, return to that boiling point one last time. Your blood is feeling as if it is boiling, you're annoyed and you can feel the heat. Maybe you're on the edge of conflict and it's uncomfortable for you or maybe you are cycling your way through it, but here is some good news. You have the opportunity to choose what you want to do in this moment and how you want to react. What route will you take?