There’s a difference between reacting and responding. A reaction is impulsive and instantaneous; a response is a considered, conscious choice of action.
Fight, Flight or Freeze
The most primitive part of our brain – the amygdala – controls our initial reaction to a threat. Whether we opt for flight, to fight, or to freeze, is beyond our conscious control. This reaction kicks in whether the threat is physical, like meeting a bear in the woods or you are in a conflict situation.
So if you notice yourself impersonating a rabbit in the headlights when you meet a conflict, that is your amygdala protecting you. Likewise, if you get angry as soon as you can smell a whiff of a conflict, or if you bolt out of the door. Which is your most common reaction to a conflict threat? You have no choice over these initial reactions. You do however have a choice over how you respond after this initial split-second impulse.
Dealing with our emotions in conflict situations
We have probably all experienced at some time in our lives the sense of being overtaken by our emotions in a conflict situation, whether we’re overwhelmed by anger or hurt or fear, we just can’t think straight. Strong emotions become triggers for reactions that can be very damaging to our relationships.
Sometimes instead of reacting, we suppress our emotions because we want to avoid conflict. If we want to learn to effectively resolve our conflicts, we need to find ways to move from the habitual responses of either reacting or suppressing our emotions, to being able to acknowledge the presence of our emotions to ourselves and also to be sufficiently in control of them that we can make wise choices about how we respond to the situation.
The aim of this exercise is to develop familiarity with the felt sense of emotions in the body and to use the breath to help release the tension and reduce the intensity of the emotions. Find somewhere quiet and comfortable to sit or lie down. Close your eyes. Let your body relax and notice the sensations in your body where it rests on the floor or chair. Then bring your attention to your breathing, notice the sensations in your body as you breath in and out. Don’t try to breath in any special way, just relaxed breathing. After a minute or so, check to see if you are holding any tension in your belly, your solar plexus (just below the ribs in the centre of your body), your upper chest or throat.
Notice whether any particular emotion comes to mind that is linked to this tension. Imagine now that you are letting your breath move through this part of your body. What happens to the tension? What happens to the emotion? Do you have a sense that the tension is released and the intensity of the emotion reduced? If locating the felt sense of your emotions seems to be working for you then you might like to practice noticing the felt sense of your emotions in daily life breathing through that pat of your body and letting them go.