This is what’s happening to your brain in the middle of a conflict. Fred reports too often on “One Punch to the Head and You are Dead”; this may offer tips to the hot headed temperments who find it hard to control their tempers. Source: FAST COMPANY

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This is what’s happening to your brain in the middle of a conflict

When we experience or perceive a potential rupture in our relationship with another person, our brain reacts as if we’re in actual danger.

[Photo: BUDDHI Kumar SHRESTHA/Unsplash]

5th November 2022

By Amy Gallo

5 minute Read

A few months ago, I was introduced over email to a consultant, who I’ll call Brad. The person who made the introduction thought Brad would make a good contributor to Harvard Business Review, where I work as an editor. I receive a good number of these introductions, and when this one came in, I was particularly overwhelmed with requests. Brad asked if we could get on the phone to talk. I courteously declined and let him know that an editor would be in touch about the draft he submitted. A few weeks later, he asked again. Again, I sent what I thought was a polite response explaining that because of the demands on my time, I wouldn’t be able to have a call with him. Then I got this email from Brad: “We’re all busy but human connection is the most important thing. I’m going to take my writing elsewhere. I can’t handle the ego.” 

This wasn’t the first time I’d dealt with a frustrated would-be author. But this one got to me. I reread his note a few times, my heart rate increasing and my shoulders and neck tensing. Initially, I thought that it was all Brad’s fault. That soon morphed into self-doubt. I started to wonder if he was right. Then, I took a few deep breaths and did what I thought was right: I deleted the email. 

After hitting delete, Brad’s email kept popping into my mind. When I was making dinner that night, I thought about the line “I can’t handle the ego.” And at 3:00 a.m. the next morning, instead of falling back to sleep, I was still thinking about it, and beating myself up for not being able to let it go.

When interacting with someone challenging, our brain wants to protect us from harm. In the process, however, it often holds us back. I decided to let Brad’s email go, shrug it off, and move on. But my brain was hooked on the interaction. 

Our brains on conflict

When we experience or perceive a potential rupture in our relationship with another person, our brain reacts as if we’re in actual danger. It prepares our body to respond to that perceived threat while attempting to make sense of what we’re experiencing. 

On each side of our brain, behind the optical nerves, there’s an amygdala. One of its functions is to detect fear and then prepare the body to respond appropriately. So, when you perceive a threat, the amygdala begins to react by signaling the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. 

These instinctual responses save time and energy and often do keep us safe. If you’re standing in the middle of the road and there’s a car bearing down on you, it would be dangerous if your brain paused to think. You need it to react instinctively and tell your body to get out of the street as quickly as possible. 

How mental space prevents amygdala hijack

The more you can observe your instinctive reactions when your mind senses a threat, the better you’ll get at separating the stories your brain cooks up from what’s actually happening. Once you’ve created a little space from a vexing episode, you can then reappraise it. Psychologists have found that reappraisal—reassessing an emotional situation in a more positive or neutral light, or as a challenge instead of a threat—helps people focus and make more considered decisions about how to proceed.

Pay attention to your stress levels 

When stress is running high, you become more susceptible to the pitfalls of an amygdala hijack. Having a simple list of questions on hand for fraught situations could be the difference between losing your cool and finding a productive way forward. Here’s a mental checklist that I use when I notice that I’m going into an amygdala hijack: 

  • Am I hydrated? 
  • Am I hungry? 
  • How did I sleep last night? 
  • What else am I worried about? 
  • Do I have any big projects or deadlines weighing on my mind? 
  • Are any of my important relationships with friends or family strained right now? 
  • When was the last time I did something that I enjoyed? 

Monitoring your mental resources in this way can help you gain perspective. Throughout 2020, I had to remind myself regularly that the cognitive load of living through a pandemic made me much more prone to interpret the behavior of those around me as threatening, mostly because I already felt threatened. And when you’re in survival mode, you don’t have the reserves to tolerate additional stress. 

The power of time 

Often, getting a good night’s sleep is exactly what you need to change your mindset. Alice Boyes, the author of The Anxiety Toolkit, helped me understand that while our initial response to a coworker talking over us in a meeting (again) or not following up on a task they promised to get done may be intense, those negative emotions don’t usually persist. 

Let’s go back to my incident with Brad. I noticed the following day when I woke up that I cared less about what had happened. I didn’t really think about it during the day. Each day passed, and I thought about it less and less. As I’m writing this now, I actually care almost not at all—almost. 

Give yourself time away from thinking about issues you’re having with a coworker. Consider taking a break. Get outside or listen to your favorite song—anything that pulls your attention away from your colleague for a bit. Then return to the interaction later and see if you have a different point of view once you’ve gotten out of the amygdala hijack. 

That’s not to say you should completely ignore conflict or pretend it doesn’t bother you. Boyes says that thinking about challenging situations can actually be helpful, as long as your mind is focused on problem-solving and not rumination or perfection. 

Our minds can often work against us in these moments of conflict. But we can use the same brain science in our favor. One way to do this is to remind ourselves that the other person may be going through the same thing. It might not be their intention to hurt you, lash out at you, or make your life miserable—perhaps they’re in an amygdala hijack and aren’t thinking clearly. Seeing an adversary as a person with a brain that works in the same—sometimes flawed—way that yours does can be the first step toward creating a better relationship. 

Excerpted from Getting Along: How To Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People) by Amy Gallo. It is adapted and reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review Press.

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