Beyond bringing out your not-best self, arguing can also trigger your fight-or-flight response. That is, the physiological reaction that either prepares your body to stay and fight or to flee the scene, emotionally, or physically, or both. Activating this response cues several parts of your body to physically react to the stressor (in this case, an argument) and can cause you to react instinctively.
“Arguments can trigger the emotional center in the brain, the amygdala,” says psychotherapist David Klow, LMFT and author of You Are Not Crazy: Letters From Your Therapist. “When you get emotionally triggered, you can feel threatened, and your inherent fight-or-flight response can kick in.”
Research shows that when you have an amygdala response, you lose touch with your prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that has access to language, reasoning, and problem-solving, Klow says. Unfortunately, those are all skills that come in handy during an argument. “In some ways, when we go into a fight-flight response, we literally lose our minds and can't think clearly,” he says.
Most people tend to fall more into the “flight” than “fight” category in arguments, meaning they’d rather try to get away from the situation than stay and duke it out, says clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of Should I Stay Or Should I Go?. “But we have learned reactions. Some folks are fighters; others are flighters, and we may learn to react differently depending on whom we are with.”
But in general, “we learn our ways of conflict in childhood, and shape them as we enter adulthood,” Dr. Durvasula says. Furthermore, your fight-or-flight argument style can say a lot about you—even if the behavior is very different to how you behave in other situations.
Check out what what your fight-or-flight argument style suggests about you.
You tend to clam up
Some people just can’t deal with arguments and their gut reaction is to simply shut down. This is actually a primal defense response, Klow says. (Think of a deer in headlights, applied to human emotions.) Reacting this way indicates that you have an innate fear of conflict, Dr. Durvasula says. As a result, arguments are usually emotionally paralyzing for you.
You usually cry
Arguing is emotional, and it can be especially so for some people who start crying in the heat of the moment. Crying during an argument is actually a response to feeling threatened, Klow says. People who instinctively react this way feel overwhelmed by strong emotion during a conflict and may even have a fear of arguing, Dr. Durvasula says. Crying is simply a way of finding emotional relief when things feel too overwhelming to handle.
You get more aggressive
This is the traditional “fight” side of the fight-or-flight response, according to Dr. Durvasula, and people who resort to this often have found success using the method in past arguments. Those who up the ante on aggression during an argument tend to feel the need to defend themselves from a perceived threat, Klow says. “Anger is often a protective emotion,” he adds.
You brush things off, but get mad about it later
It can be hard to deal with a conflict in the moment, which is why some people try to simply dismiss it. Unfortunately, this can lead to having unresolved anger later, and Klow says it's actually a combo of both fight and flight since you try to avoid the argument at first, but then get worked up by the repercussions later. If this is your argument style, it’s likely you learned it early in life, and it just stuck, Dr. Durvasula says. And, she adds, it’s “a passive-aggressive style.”
Keep in mind there's no single correct fight-or-flight argument style. If you tend to clam up, for example, you probably won't say something you’ll later regret, but you also may have trouble standing your ground. And if you know your go-to reaction isn’t helping you out, there are a few things you can do to try to change that.
Experts stress that taking a moment to calm down when you feel yourself getting worked up is helpful. “Take a break and wait for the emotional center in the brain to calm down, thus allowing the prefrontal cortex to come back online,” Klow says. This method can help you learn to respond to a situation appropriately instead of going with your gut, Dr. Durvasula says. Afterward, “stop personalizing the conflict (even when it feels personal). Think of an alternate way to respond that can defuse the argument, and always avoid escalating,” she says.
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