Calming Your Brain During Conflict
Conflict wreaks havoc on our brains. We are groomed by evolution to protect ourselves whenever we sense a threat. In our modern context, we don’t fight like a badger with a coyote, or run away like a rabbit from a fox. But our basic impulse to protect ourselves is automatic and unconscious.
We have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.
When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.” We notice immediate changes like an increased heart rate or sweaty palms. Our breathing becomes more shallow and rapid as we take in more oxygen, preparing to bolt if we have to.
The flood of stress hormones create other sensations like a quivering in our solar plexus, limbs, or our voice. We may notice heat flush our face, our throat constrict, or the back of our neck tighten and jaw set. We are in the grip of a highly efficient, but prehistoric set of physiological responses. These sensations are not exactly pleasant — they’re not meant for relaxation. They’re designed to move us to action.
The active amygdala also immediately shuts down the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex so we can become disoriented in a heated conversation. Complex decision-making disappears, as does our access to multiple perspectives. As our attention narrows, we find ourselves trapped in the one perspective that makes us feel the most safe: “I’m right and you’re wrong,” even though we ordinarily see more perspectives.
And if that wasn’t enough, our memory becomes untrustworthy. Have you ever been in a fight with your partner or friend, and you literally can’t remember a positive thing about them? It’s as though the brain drops the memory function altogether in an effort to survive the threat. When our memory is compromised like this, we can’t recall something from the past that might help us calm down. In fact, we can’t remember much of anything. Instead, we’re simply filled with the flashing red light of the amygdala indicating “Danger, react. Danger, protect. Danger, attack.”
In the throes of amygdala hijack, we can’t choose how we want to react because the old protective mechanism in the nervous system does it for us — even before we glimpse that there could be a choice. It is ridiculous.
Practicing Mindfulness in Conflict
Mindfulness is the perfect awareness technique to employ when a conflict arises — whether it’s at work or home. It allows us to override the conditioned nervous system with conscious awareness. Instead of attacking or recoiling, and later justifying our reactions, we can learn to stay present, participate in regulating our own nervous system, and eventually, develop new, more free and helpful ways of interacting.
Practicing mindfulness in the middle of a conflict demands a willingness to stay present, to feel intensely, to override our negative thoughts, and to engage our breath to maintain presence with the body. Like any skill, it takes practice.
There are different approaches to working with a provoked nervous system and intense emotions, but they all have some elements in common. Here are four simple steps (which I also describe in my book, Everything is Workable) that I try to use when I find myself with an overloaded nervous system and a body racing with a fight or flight impulse.
Step 1: Stay present.
The first step in practicing mindfulness when triggered is to notice we are provoked. We may notice a change in our tone of voice, gripping sensations in the belly, or a sudden desire to withdraw. Each of us has particular bodily and behavioral cues that alert us to the reality that we feel threatened, and are therefore running on automatic pilot.
We have to decide to stay put and present, to be curious and explore our experience. For me, it helps to remind myself to relax. I have a visual cue that I use that involves my son. When I’m worked up, he has the habit of looking at me, raising and lowering his hands in a calming fashion, and saying “Easy Windmill.” I try to reflect on this and it helps me calm down because he’s so charming when he does it.
Step 2: Let go of the story.
This might be the most difficult part of the practice. We need to completely let go of the thinking and judging mind. This is a very challenging step because when we feel threatened, the mind immediately fills with all kinds of difficult thoughts and stories about what’s happening. But we must be willing to forget the story, just for a minute, because there is a feedback loop between our thoughts and our body. If the negative thoughts persist, so do the stressful hormones. It isn’t that we’re wrong, but we will be more far more clear in our perceptions when the nervous system has relaxed.
Step 3: Focus on the body.
Now simply focus on feeling and exploring whatever sensations arise in the body. We feel them naturally, just as they are, not trying to control or change them. We allow the mind to be as open as possible, noticing the different places in the body where sensations occur, what is tight, shaky, rushing, or hurts. We pay attention to the different qualities and textures of the sensations, and the way things change and shift. We can also notice how biased we are against unpleasant or more intense sensations.
Step 4: Finally, breathe.
Everybody knows that it helps to breathe. There are many different qualities of the breath, but we only need to learn about two: Rhythm and smoothness. As Alan Watkins explains in his book Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership, if we focus on these two dimensions, even for a few short minutes, the production of the cortisol and adrenaline will stop.
To breath rhythmically means that the in-breath and out-breath occur repeatedly at the same intervals. So if we inhale, counting 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then exhale, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, then inhale again, counting 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then exhale again, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6; this establishes rhythm.
At the same time, we should invite the breath to be even or smooth, meaning that the volume of the breath stays consistent as it moves in and out, like sipping liquid through a narrow straw. If we manage those two qualities for just a few minutes, the breath assists us in remaining present, making it possible to stay with intense sensation in the body.
Paying attention to our body re-establishes equilibrium faster, restoring our ability to think, to listen, and relate. This takes practice, but eventually, we retrain ourselves to respond rather than to react. Anger becomes clarity and resolve, sadness leads to compassion, jealousy becomes fuel for change.
There will also be certain moments when we fail. Becoming more intimate with our body’s response to a hijacked nervous system is challenging, to say the least. This is because the sensations are very uncomfortable, our emotions are volatile, and our mind is usually filling with unsupportive thoughts like “Get me outta here,” or “How can they be saying that?” or “This is a waste of my time.”
Each time we succeed in being mindful of our body in moments of distress, we develop our capacity. Even more, we may observe something new when it occurs. A moment of pause, an unexpected question when it appears or a laugh that erupts. When anything new happens, taking note of it helps to free us of the pattern to our old way of doing things. Before we know it, our old habit of fight or flight is changing, and the world is a safer place.
Originally published in Harvard Business Review.
Diane Musho Hamilton is an internationally recognized mediator and facilitator and the author of Everything is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution.