Whether you get into a verbal fist fight with someone you love, witness a disagreement that turns physical on your morning commute, or become a virtual bystander to a heart-wrenching viral video, emotional fallout can feel like a dark cloud you just can’t get out from under. In some situations, opting out simply isn’t an option (like, say, when family member is scrutinizing your life choices), but psychologists say that learning how to deal with conflict and taking a few steps to care for yourself in the aftermath can alleviate future trauma.
“Depending on how stressed you were before the event, it can take 20 minutes to three hours to come down from that high-alert status,” says Mellisa Sherlin, author of Offensive Compassion: 24 Things You Can Do Today to Combat Hate in the Real World. Since both physical and emotional factors are at play here, you’ll need the know-how around both components before you can really start to show up for yourself in the healing process. Below, the experts share exactly how to do that.
What’s happening physiologically after a fight—and how to deal
According to the Sherlin, physical and verbal altercations alike can trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response. When you fight, your heartbeat speeds up, your adrenaline kicks in, and blood rushes to your muscles to prepare you to throw a punch. In flight, your breathing turns shallow as you prepare to run. A freeze response is similar to “playing dead.” Your heart rate slows and your limbs feel heavy.
You can’t flip a switch to turn these responses on or off. Long after you’ve extricated yourself from a hostile scene, it’s not uncommon for these biological irregularities to linger.
How to calm yourself down: “A great technique to calm yourself down is taking deep breaths and counting back from 30 to 0,” says Neeraj Gandotra, MD, chief medical officer at Delphi Behavioral Health Group. “This causes your mind to focus on breathing instead of whatever is upsetting you.” Dr. Gandotra recommends counting “one one-thousand, two one-thousand [inhale], three one-thousand, four one-thousand, [exhale],” and so on and so forth. “This exercise regulates your breathing to 15 breaths per minute which will help to ensure you don’t hyperventilate. I would recommend continuing this exercise for 2-4 minutes,” he says.
Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a psychologist in the Chicago area who specializes in trauma, adds that engaging your senses can also help you put distance between the event. “Do something that absorbs all of your attention for a while,” says the expert. “There was a study that showed playing Tetris can help with trauma symptoms, probably because it takes attention away from the trigger.” Something as simple as brewing yourself a cup of tea and paying really close attention to how it looks, tastes, and smells will help you find your equilibrium once more.
What’s happening emotionally after a fight—and how to deal
“Once someone recognizes a dangerous situation, they either identify with the aggressor or the victim. Both trigger a feeling, ‘my community is being attacked, I must support my community in order to be accepted,'” says Sherlin. Should you do nothing to help the person you most identify with as the bystander, you’ll be left with the guilt of breaking the unwritten social contract.
“If our actions reflect something we do not believe is true about ourselves (e.g., that we would not help someone in need), then our physiological responses take longer to go back to normal as our brain digs up our insecurities to try and convince us that this action is part of us,” says Sherlin. When we encounter disagreements—active participants or otherwise—past feelings and traumas tend to resurface.
How to start working through it: Dr. Gandrota suggests letting 24-48 hours pass after the fact before you start chipping away at why the scene felt significant for you. “You must allow yourself time to calm down. talking about it the next day or the day after you will be much more objective, especially if you plan to explain the occurrence to another person,” he says.
Once the event feels far enough in the past, you can lean into a little self-reflection. “Question the honest impact the event that took place will have on your life,” he recommends. If it won’t alter the course of your future, he recommends reminding yourself of that whenever your thoughts bring the argument up again and again. However, if you start to feel like the memory of whatever happened is too heavy to carry on your own, consider talking to a friend or seeking help.
Just remember: No one makes it through life sans conflict.
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