When we’re very upset, fight-or-flight chemistry fills every cell of our bodies with the imperative to survive. In those moments, we’re geared to fight to the death or run for our lives; it isn’t the time to solve a complex math problem or decide which shade of purple best matches our new sweater. In fact, we can barely think — which is why so many things can go wrong in heated conversations.

A Brain Gone Wrong

The truth is that our brains tend to “overdo” our protection system. After all, being very upset generally need not trigger an all-out battle cry inside our bodies. We can save the adrenalin rush for times of true emergency. Why bring out the big guns when we’re simply upset because something went wrong at the store or a loved one wasn’t particularly loving or a child was being a child?

Unfortunately, we can become highly reactive even when experiencing minor frustration. Our inability to open a can of tomatoes when we’re madly rushing against a deadline (getting to work, for example), can unleash a torrent of rage-filled emotion accompanied by a complete fit. Is this really such an emergency that we require the full force of our fight-or-flight system? Hardly. Yet our heart-brain doesn’t bother to distinguish minor threats from major ones: A threat is a threat, and the system designed to address a threat has a simple on/off switch rather than a titrated dosing capacity.

The Emergency Response

One of the ubiquitous threats that triggers the emergency response is the feeling of being diminished. When someone makes a remark that detracts from our sense of self, it feels as if our very existence is threatened. All of our chemistry immediately organizes to squelch that seemingly life-threatening threat. We speak fast and loud, just as we would do when fleeing from a fire. We roar and pound and lash out verbally, hoping to quickly subdue “the enemy.”

As in any other emergency situation, our cortical function is compromised — we aren’t processing information normally. Everything we see and hear is processed through the lens of danger. This is why fights between spouses tend to sound odd.

The following dialogue, for example, shows a couple attempting to discuss why the wife withdrew funds from their savings account. The husband’s initial shocked reaction had caused the wife to shut down, and her lack of communication further alarmed him. Below, we see that he tries again to get her to explain her actions:

Husband: “You’re not crazy and I know you had a good reason for doing what you did. Just explain it to me.”

Wife: “So now you’re calling me ‘crazy!’ Do you really think that name-calling will help us here?”

Hearing Attack

Obviously, the husband was not calling his wife anything, yet she “heard” a clear attack. Why? Because she already perceived herself as under attack and was hypervigilant for further signs of danger. Her husband was questioning her motives, her trustworthiness, possibly her entire character. In the light of this “inquisition,” she was flooded with fight-or-flight chemistry, which shut down her ability to clearly understand what was being said. The word “crazy” popped out of a difficult-to-analyze (in her state) sentence and she ran with it.

This is one reason why we should never use dramatic negative words during arguments — they’ll inevitably be distorted by the upset listener. “I can’t stand this!” can become “I can’t stand you!” “Divorce is not an option” can become “Divorce is the only option.” Actually, the most protective policy is not to say much at all, until all parties are calm

The importance of using non-escalatory language in disputes applies even to business transactions. In writing a letter of complaint, for example, a customer might say “I was displeased when the cashier wouldn’t refund my money, although she wasn’t rude or unprofessional.” The person reading the complaint would be primed by the fact that it was a complaint, affecting his ability to accurately understand the message. It’d be preferable to write “I wasn’t happy when the cashier wouldn’t refund my money, although she was polite and professional.”

It helps compromised listeners when we use the most positive words we can. It also helps to complain only when we’ve calmed down enough to be able to choose the most positive words. Communication and threat do not work well together — so do your best to keep them apart. (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 576)