Managing stress responses when fighting



When we argue in our relationships and the argument is out of control (e.g. we are not fighting fairly) usually our bodies go into fight, flight or freeze mode. This is really important to talk about, because there is some basic neurochemistry which will help you understand what is happening in your body.

I want you to remember what it feels like when your body is fight, flight or freeze – I’m now going to refer to these sensations as being ‘activated’. When our body is activated it means that our brain is using the earliest version of itself. Scientists place this part of our brain as being over 280 million years old. It’s the part that is located at the base of your skull. You may know it as the ‘reptilian brain’. This part of the brain doesn’t perceive thoughts or make decisions and it doesn’t understand emotions – these functions are completed in higher parts of the brain from the top of the forehead, back. When we are activated, the brain only uses the reptilian brain, until the threat has passed. This is to keep us safe. Of course in this day and age, life is quite different to how it was when we needed this part of the brain to literally keep us alive. However our brains don't know the difference between a fight with our loved ones and a fight for actual survival. So the same defenses are deployed.

Now, back to that fight, the fight that is not resolving itself. It is highly likely that one or both of you are activated. This means you can’t think clearly because your reptilian brain is in charge. Until the perceived threat has passed, you will not be able to think clearly. You will be responding by fighting (dirtily most likely), freezing (unable to articulate yourself well/clearly) or flight (fleeing the scene).

The best thing you can do for yourself, and your loved one – because remember, you are fighting with someone you love –is to relax your body out of the threat response - fighting, and allow yourself to relax back into homeostasis/equilibirium.

Take a break from the fight and follow these guidelines until you find something that works for you. Then you may resume discussions ;-)

They are all body based, as the reptilian brain only understands sensation.

Here’s my body calm down list:

Use the five senses.

  1. Touch – deep tissue massage will stimulate deep tissue receptors which are linked directly to your reptilian brain and tell your brain that you are safe and to relax. Rubbing the back of your neck will produce a similar sensation (think about all the times you have unconsciously rubbed someone’s back or arm when they are upset). Other ideas include squeezing your fingers and concentrate on the sensations and stretching your body.
  2. Taste – Make yourself a soothing drink like herbal tea, hot chocolate etc. Alcohol might provide you with a feeling of safety but remember it is a depressant, so things might rapidly deteriorate. Alternatively, make something nice to eat and share it with your partner.
  3. Sight – Look at family photos or art that brings you happy memories and pleasure. Allow yourself to remember and feel safe and happy again. Don’t worry – you can pick up that fight/discussion in a minute!
  4. Smell – One of my favourite things is to use an oil diffuser. I have one that is electrical and switches itself off when it runs out of water. Use a 100% oil blend that is calming, like orange or lavender. Even the ritual of putting it on makes me feel better.
  5. Hearing – The other favourite of mine is to put on some music. Something that gets me dancing. Moving your body to music also works magic on telling that reptilian brain to cool it, you are ok.

When you are both calm and de-activated, it is the perfect time for you to reconvene your, ahem, discussion. Read here for ways to fight constructively.


How do you calm down when you are activated?


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