Think of a time when a conversation suddenly turns heated. Perhaps a co-worker makes a derogatory comment to you in front of colleagues. Or a close friend neglects to call you on your birthday. Or your spouse nags and criticizes you.
When you have a strong interest in maintaining harmony or strengthening an important relationship, managing your emotions can make all the difference.
When conflicts like these arise, our brains are biologically hardwired to automatically react to a perceived threat to our safety. And then the brain’s automatic “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction literally takes over.
In that heated emotional moment, we lose the very part of our brains we need most to think rationally and intentionally. And that’s when we are likely to say something that makes things worse.
The good news is you can take back control and turn things around to improve communication and your relationship. Below are 3 simple steps to taking control and circumventing the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction:
1. Notice what you’re feeling. You might feel a sudden urge to yell, insult, defend yourself, or run away. At the same time, you might notice a heated flush in your face as anger rises, pressure in your chest, or your heart beating faster.
2. Suspend all thought and judgment. Let go of whatever story you’re telling yourself in the moment.
3. Breathe and Count. Breathe in and count 1-2-3-4. Breathe out as you count 1-2-3-4-5-6. Repeat until you can think clearly.
Before we can think clearly and rationally, we have to calm the brain’s “fight-or-flight” reaction. Each time we succeed in calming our emotional reactions, we increase our ability to do so.
It’s also possible to make a habit of calming your brain during conflict so it becomes automatic. Every day, practice controlling your thoughts. For instance, whenever you find yourself having restless thoughts about the past or future, simply stop, breathe, and pay attention to where you are and who you’re with. In other words, practice being mindful. I’ve found guided mediations helpful.
Daily repetition is key. On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact.
Mastering your emotions, like anything worth having, is worth working for when you have stronger deeper connections with the people closest to you.
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