This article first appeared on SHE'SAID' and has been republished with permission.
Has your mouth ever gone dry when you heard terrible news? Are you familiar with the feeling of your heart thudding painfully in your chest when you’re extremely nervous? Have you broken into a sweat while you were sitting perfectly still, just because of the panicked thoughts racing through your head?
If so, then you know the link between our minds and our bodies is absolutely, undeniably real.
Now think about the last time you had a bad fight with your partner. The kind of fight where afterwards, you felt physically drained, and couldn’t even really remember what the fight was about. When this happens, it can be confusing and scary, as if you’ve been possessed. When you regain your faculties, you struggle to remember what you said and why you said it. Not a very effective way to communicate.
On the other hand, maybe you’ve had the experience of getting into an argument with your partner and having them suddenly check out, or become so agitated that they stopped being able to respond to you in a way that makes sense. You might have felt perfectly calm, thinking you were just having a discussion, and wondered why they were losing their cool so badly.
The reason we sometimes can’t keep our shit together when we’re having a conflict with our partner — whether you call it a discussion, an argument, or a fight — is that our bodies truly do take over, more often than we’d like to admit. We can try to master our emotions, push down our feelings, and be in control, but when you’re upset, those feelings are going to manifest somehow, no matter what you do.
Mind over matter
The saying, “mind over matter” is usually used to mean that we should be able to overcome the physical with the mental. For example, I’m running a marathon next week, and I know my attitude will play a huge part in determining whether I make it through those 26.2 miles. I’ll steel my mind and tell myself I can do it, and somehow my legs will get the message and carry me through. Mind over matter.
The thing is, when you’re fighting with your partner, it’s your amygdala that takes over. That’s the part of your brain that processes fear, and it’s powerful. You can’t reason with your amygdala, or tell it to calm down. When your amygdala gets triggered, you can enter a state known as Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA). In DPA, your heart beats faster, the blood flow to your vital organs slows, and your adrenaline level skyrockets. It’s definitely mind over matter – only, you’re not in control of your mind.
People can’t process communication when they’re in DPA. Your partner might shut down and stop talking completely, or you might prattle on nonsensically, but either way, no one is engaging and communicating. Psychologist John Gottman, PhD, calls DPA “flooding” and warns that once you’ve become flooded, your argument can’t go anywhere good.
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Fight or flight
When your body is in DPA, you’re experiencing the “fight or flight” response. This is what all animals experience when they’re faced with a life-threatening situation: you either stay and fight off the attacker, or you turn and run as fast as you can. Only, a fight with your partner isn’t a life-threatening situation (or at least, it shouldn’t ever be).
Consider this, though: when you’re afraid of losing the person you love, it can trigger very primal feelings of abandonment. These feelings can be so strong that they actually may seem life-threatening. It goes back to being a baby, when you were completely reliant on others to care for you; your very survival hinged on someone (usually your mother) holding you, feeding you, and keeping you safe. You may not rely on your partner for food and shelter, but according to attachment theory, we do transfer those feelings of dependence onto our romantic partners – and this is actually a healthy thing!
Psychologist Sue Johnson, PhD, writes in her bestselling book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, “this drive to emotionally attach…is wired into our genes and our bodies. It is as basic to life, health, and happiness as the drives for food, shelter, or sex. We need emotional attachments with a few irreplaceable others to be physically and mentally healthy — to survive.”
Getting past the panic
As I’ve written before, fighting in relationships is unavoidable. It’s even healthy. But not every fight is good for your relationship. In order to be productive, couples have to learn to fight in a way that fosters communication and moves their relationship forward. When you’re flooded, or in DPA, or experiencing fight-or-flight (three names for the same phenomenon), that can’t happen.
So, what to do? Learn how to calm down. Gottman calls it self-soothing, and it’s not hard. He says when one or both members of a couple are flooded, they need to walk away and give themselves at least 20 minutes to calm down. An hour is even better. Take deep, slow breaths. Drink some water. Go for a walk outside. Write in a journal. Make a commitment to your partner that when you’re feeling this way, or when they are, you promise to come back together later to continue the discussion — but only after you’ve recovered physically and are capable of having a calm conversation.
When you surrender to the fact that our bodies really are affected by what’s going on around us — and inside us — it’s easier to have sympathy for yourself, as well as your partner. Learning how to work through conflict without putting your body though cold sweats, dry mouth, and heart palpitations is better for you, and better for your relationship.