Most people have heard about the “fight or flight” response that people often enter when in scary or highly emotional situations, and most people are familiar with their bodily symptoms: extra adrenaline makes heart and respiration rates go up, and more blood is pumped to the big muscles in the arms and legs (to prepare the body to fight off or run away from a predator), less blood supply is routed to certain internal organs such as the stomach (you don’t need to be digesting that meal right now while you feel like you’re in danger), and cortisol is pumped into the bloodstream to keep the response going.
But most people are unaware that there are also major changes in blood flow inside the brain during fight or flight: less blood supply is routed to the higher-level thinking centers (primarily the prefrontal cortex), while more blood supply is routed to the structures deep inside the brain that are responsible for kicking fight or flight into gear (primarily the amygdala, which responds to fear, and the hypothalamus).
The result of this blood flow shift in the brain is that the person in fight or flight is incapable of rational thought—a process that psychologist Daniel Goleman first termed an “amygdala hijacking” in his best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ.
What this means for you in practical terms is that, until and unless you can calm the emotional person down, your efforts to give him advice are destined to fail.
So, what should you do? First, keep cool when the person you’re talking with is losing it—at least one of you needs to have a functioning prefrontal cortex! Don’t let yourself get caught up in the other person’s heightened state of emotion.
Now, you might be thinking at this point, “Wait. I thought we were supposed to practice empathy when listening to others.” Yes, absolutely. But understanding and feeling the other person’s pain in this kind of situation doesn’t mean that you go ahead and allow that emotion to “infect” you. Feel for the other person, but don’t follow her into fight or flight.
If the person’s outburst is especially intense, you may need to establish some boundaries before proceeding. For example, let’s say that you work from home and that your significant other asked you to pay some bills for her while she was at work. The bills were due that day and it would cause a late charge to kick in if not paid by the deadline. And you forgot to pay them.
When your significant other gets home and finds out you didn’t pay the bills, she goes off on you, accusing you of never listening to her and being neglectful. You try apologizing, but she’s raving and doesn’t want to hear it.
In such a situation, you might let her know that you’ll remove yourself from the situation unless she can engage at a manageable level. Just say something along the lines of, “I know you’re upset, and you have a right to be, but I can’t talk about this with you if you keep yelling. So, I’m going to get in the car and drive around for a while. When I come back, maybe we can talk it through.”
Give her at least 30 minutes before returning. She will almost undoubtedly still be mad at you, but she will also probably have cooled down somewhat, enough so that she’s no longer in fight or flight. At that point, you can use some of the strategies discussed in the next lesson to work through the issue together.
By the way, not everyone goes in for screaming and ranting when they’re highly upset. Some people’s “go-to” response is to give everyone around them the silent treatment. This is another situation in which you might need to remove yourself for a while (the silent treatment doesn’t have any effect if nobody’s around to see it). Simply let the other person know that you’re there for him if and when he’s ready to talk about it and make yourself scarce. After giving him a suitable cool-down period, return and give things another try.
Finally, if you don’t want to remove yourself completely from the situation, you may also try pushing the “pause button” on the meltdown by redirecting the conversation to something else (“I’d be happy to listen about what happened, but let me just get dinner on the table first.”), then try starting the conversation again after the pause.
Walking away or pausing via redirection gives the other person a little time to cool down and gives you time to collect yourself for the conversation to come. In the next lesson, we’ll walk through a process for conducting such conversations that have proven to be highly successful.
Think back to a time when you “lost it.” What was the triggering event? How did you react? How did you feel physically? Did someone else try to talk to you? If so, what approach did the person use, and what impact did their approach have on you?
More generally, what have you noticed about yourself when you get overly emotional about something? Do you like for someone to comfort you? Do you prefer to be left alone? What’s your “go-to” coping strategy?
Use the worksheet provided for getting these reflections down.