It is a basic impulse to protect ourselves from any kind of threat. Either physical or mental, when we sense a threat, our body is reacting. The responsible parts of our body for detecting the danger are actually the amygdalae. The amygdala is one of two almond-shaped groups of nuclei, one on each side of the brain, located within the temporal lobes.
How to calm the brain during a conflict
According to dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book, The body keeps the score, the amygdala works like a smoke detector when it comes to threat. Each time danger emerges, the amygdala sounds the alarm and the whole body is filled with chemicals. Adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones flood our system and the body is getting ready to fight back. Daniel Goleman states in his book, Emotional Intelligence, that the moment when our defense instinct takes over, the amygdala is “hijacked”. Each one of us can relate to immediate changes in the body, such as heart rate increase or sweaty palms. When the adrenaline kicks in and the breathing becomes more rapid, the body is actually preparing to face the danger. It needs more oxygen; the heart has to pump more blood to put everything in motion for any type of challenge.
Even though we do not have to face physical dangers that often, the flood of stress hormone can create a lot of sensations such as quivering in our entire body. You will also notice heat flushes your face, the throat constricts, the jaw is set or your neck tightens. These physiological responses may seem prehistoric, but are highly efficient in our protection. This means that they are designed to set us in motion, to force to body to take action.
In this case, the active amygdala shuts down the neural pathway to the prefrontal cortex, which makes us disoriented in an argument. At this point, nothing can calm the brain. We lose access to the complex decision-making and also to multiple perspectives. The attention narrows and we often feel trapped in the perspective that feels most safe. We will need to cling on the idea that we are right in that situation and our opponent is wrong. Moreover, the memory becomes deceitful. Only negative thoughts come to surface, we can only remember bad things, or we cannot recall much of anything sometimes. At this moment, the brain drops the memory function in an effort to survive the attack. Meanwhile, the amygdala flashes a red light indicating the danger and its sole signals are: react, protect, attack! Therefore, the defense mechanism is set in motion and we start acting like crazy.
Mindfulness during conflict
Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training. This process is a good technique to engage when a conflict occurs. It allows you to override the nervous system with conscious awareness. Instead of attacking and instantly regret, you can learn to stay present, participate in stabilizing your temper. Instead of attacking or recoil, through mindfulness we can develop new and helpful ways of interacting.
Practicing mindfulness in the middle of a conflict requires full willingness to be present, to feel and to involve the breath to maintain presence of the body. It is not an easy job at first, but with practice, it can be a perfect method of inducing calmness and relaxation.
How to approach this method in order to calm the brain?
Even though an overloaded nervous system along with intense emotions can easily lead only to an explosion of reactions and impulses, there are solutions to calming your mental state during a conflict. In order to practice mindfulness, you need to follow some simply guidelines. First of all, you need to notice, to act as an observer. When you feel that your voice tone is already high and your body is starting to act out, try to understand all these sensations. Stay present and feel every cell in your body that is rebelling against the danger in your mind – calm your brain.
Secondly, try to give up. Only for a minute. Be the one that surrenders the fight. Let go, ignore the threat. Your mind will instantly notice the lack of danger and will send a positive feedback upon the body as well. Remember, as long as your brain feels attacked, the stress hormones will keep on flooding your body. If you succeed to do this, at least you can relax for a moment and start to think more clearly.
The next step would be to focus on your body and observe the sensations that occur naturally. If we allow the mind to open, we will be able to explore how it feels like to relax, without trying to control anything. Then, we shall notice the difference of intensity from one state to another that our body and mind provides. Each revision in the mind will be translated as reactions in the body.
Finally and most important, BREATHE!
Everyone knows that breathing facilitates relaxation and calmness. It also reduces stress and helps people fight anxiety attacks. As Alan Watkins explains in his book Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership, if we focus on the breath, even for a few short minutes, the production of the cortisol and adrenaline will stop. Therefore, the brain will unwind and along with it, all the muscles in your body.
A correct breath should be rhythmical, inhaling and exhaling at intervals of 4 to 5 seconds. Furthermore, it should be smooth, but with a consistent volume of air. You can learn how to
breathe properly from yoga. Equilibrium is established if we take deep breathes by inflating the belly, and strong, elongated exhales through the mouth. This small breathing exercise, not only
relaxes your mind and body, but also takes you to a state of consciousness, leading to meditation.
If you pay more attention to the changes in our bodies, if we become more aware of every mood switch, in different moments and situations, we might be able to control ourselves better and
develop a capacity of overcoming each negative state of mind that can occur. In any case, we should take a pause from time to time to calm the brain, take a deep breath and try to relax the mind, for a good health and a peaceful state of mind.