I was having a heated discussion with my wife about an upcoming home improvement project the other day. We had gone back and forth on it over several weeks. Finally, we made a decision. Or at least I thought so.
My wife changed her mind — again. I lost my temper. I raised my voice and made some nasty comments. I even said that she was just like her father (a definite below-the-belt remark!).
I was angry and frustrated and it took me a while to cool down. But after some reflection, I felt bad about my behavior. It didn’t matter whether I was right or wrong. It didn’t matter whether it was reasonable or not for me to be frustrated.
It didn’t matter that she had also raised her voice. I am responsible for my behavior. I raised my voice. I chose to make some negative, unnecessary remarks.
My friend Mary was having a tough time this week. She quit smoking and was going through major withdrawal. She was irritable and anxious.
She got into an argument with her husband that went from zero to 10 in just a few seconds. Pretty soon she was using the “D” word (divorce) left and right. At the end of the argument, both she and her husband were feeling terribly wounded and hurt.
There isn’t anyone that hasn’t lost their temper at some point with a friend, partner, child or parent. It happens. Our neurological smoke detector, the amygdala, sitting in our mid-brain, gets triggered by our senses — words, tone of voice and facial expression.
It sends a message to our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which releases cortisol into our bloodstream, increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, and sends blood to our core. We all know the feeling of getting hot under our collar.
Then what? A message is relayed to our pre-frontal cortex, our thinking brain, which evaluates potential responses. What should we say? We should we do? Another structure, our hippocampus, brings up memories that may help us chart a course of action. To be sure, these networks operate at high speed.
But this is where we need to take responsibility. We can inhibit the tone of our voice and the desire to defend ourselves, or we can go on the offensive. We can calm ourselves. And we can choose to say nothing, until we have something helpful to say. It takes self-control, self-awareness and strong intention.
There is almost never a good reason to lose our tempers, whether it’s with loved ones, other drivers on the road, customer service representatives or co-workers — even when we have justifiable reasons to be frustrated, distressed or angry. We can’t control our feelings, but we can control our actions.
So what can we do?
Know your triggers. Most of us have conditioned responses to certain words, tone of voice and body language. Identify what gets you upset with others — if you think about it, you will quickly identify several things that spark your ire.
Breathe, don’t speak. When your heart is pounding, take a long, slow breath in, hold it for moment, and take a longer breath out. This slows your heart rate through the vagus nerve that puts the brake on that fight or flight response. Take five to six of these breaths.
Think. Respond, don’t react. What do you want to say? What will be helpful? How can you deescalate the situation? Slow everything down.
Don’t threaten divorce. This is counterproductive and just makes everyone more anxious and tense. That’s not a solution to the problem at hand.
A few days later, my wife and I were having another heated discussion about the same home improvement project. But this time, I stayed calm and collected. I listened and didn’t argue. I realized that I needed to be more understanding.
That time, I felt good about myself — a byproduct of being the person you want to be.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.