A psychologist explains why it’s so hard to keep a handle on your emotions when your buttons are pushed, and what you can do to have more productive conversations.
If there’s one thing most people can agree on, it’s that this year has been stressful. Everyone’s lives have undergone massive change as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing restrictions, and perhaps none more so than relationships with friends, family and partners.
Lockdowns have meant that some are seeing their loved ones more than they ever imagined they would, with working from home and few options for getting out of the house meaning they are riding out the year practically in the pockets of those they live with. Social distancing, on the other hand, means that we are all unable to get too close to others, and I think most people have at least a couple of loved ones they just haven’t seen since restrictions kicked in in March.
These aren’t the easiest feelings to manage, because they are very often directed at others. So, even though you might miss the people you can’t see or understand that those you live with are going through the same things you are, it can be hard to get a handle on your frustration when they press your buttons. There’s a reason for that, though.
As Sarah Rozenthuler, a chartered psychologist and the author of How to Have Meaningful Conversations: 7 Strategies for Talking About What Matters explains, “specific threats in a social situation affect our ability to interact productively.”
She says that these threats, for example when you feel someone is insulting you or leaving you out, simulate similar brain networks to those that are triggered when your primary survival needs are threatened. This activates your limbic system, “which houses our emotional reactions.” This seeks to minimise the perceived threat “by avoiding a person or situation, or by attacking back.”
This, unfortunately, is an unconscious reaction, and one that is fairly easily triggered as Rozenthuler says that your limbic system “is more tuned to threats than rewards.” As a result, your ability to respond rationally or fairly is inhibited, making it all the more likely you will say or do something you regret.
But there are ways to ensure you don’t let confrontation get the better of you, and acknowledging the stressors that trigger that threat response is one of them.
According to David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute, there are five “key social threats that act as potential stressors”. These include having your competence undermined, feeling as though you’re being micro-managed, and believing a situation to be unfair.
So, as Rozenthuler explains, “recognising these trigger points for what they are – threats to our social standing – helps us to manage how we deal with our ‘fight or flight’ response kicking in.”
What this means is that, by taking note of the things that tip you over the edge, you become more able to take stock of the situation, see it for what it is, and “remind yourself that there is no overt threat to your wellbeing or safety,” says Rozenthuler.
She recognises that this is easier said than done, though, and that “re-engaging our ‘thinking brain’ when it has been hijacked by our ‘emotional brain’” takes time and practice to get right. If you’re a bit lost for where to start, though, you can try creating a brief pause when you find yourself in the midst of a heated conversation. Rozenthuler says that “taking a couple of deep breaths, counting to ten or getting a glass of water generates a ‘moment of choice’,” which “enables us to consciously choose what to do or say next.”
Put this into practice, and you could be on track to have far more productive conversations with the people you care about, rather than destructive confrontations. As Rozenthuler says, “no matter how provocative or perturbing someone else’s comments or behaviours are, we can learn to manage our triggers.”