MANAGING CONFLICT WITH OTHERS
Conflict can wreak 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 dog, or run away like a rabbit from a fox. But our basic impulse to protect ourselves is automatic and unconscious.
The general consensus is that when we are in conflict with someone, they, or both of you, have been ‘triggered’. This could be caused by something someone has said, a text message, an email etc. Their Amygdala (the ‘smoke detector to threat’) in your brain has been activated and you are currently in the ‘fight or flight’ response which releases a cascade of chemicals into the body.
The flood of stress hormones creates sensations like quivering limbs, or our voice. We may notice heat flush on our face, our throat constricts, or the back of our neck tighten. 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 or the person we are with ‘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 safest: “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.
So what can you try to do when this is all being activated?
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.
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 behavioural 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. Perhaps to remind ourselves to ‘relax’. Maybe have a visual cue such as someone important to you who has calmed you down in the past.
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 clearer in our perceptions when the nervous system has relaxed. If unprovoked this can take up to 20 minutes or so.
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. 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 hold for 1, 2 then exhale, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, then inhale again, 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 out of 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 can feel like a safer place.