Whether we like it or not, we are all prone to some sort of freakout in our relationships. It’s the nature of the game – your emotions, your thoughts, your life, perhaps even your living arrangement becomes intertwined with another person. All the intimacy and closeness is a recipe for connection, love and happiness however it can also generate a bit of a shit-storm when we get too up in our heads.
Do you beat yourself up for being ‘overly’ sensitive at times? What causes you to lose your shit at your partner? Is it when you catch them chatting to someone of the opposite sex? When they didn’t take out the trash? Sometimes, a particular response (or lack of response… “WHY the fuck hasn’t he replied to my message?!”) leads to a chain of behaviours you’d much rather not engage in and a whole lotta conclusions that just aren’t true. Be it sour snappy remarks, a bitter passive-aggressive withdrawal or an OTT-spicy explosion of anger or tears, we react. In our own unique flavor, we react.
But there’s a science to this madness and it lies in the irrationality of our emotional brain. We’ve all seen that couple arguing absurdly in the streets. Hands up in the air, completely losing it at one another, with no sense of those around them. When we are emotionally charged, we are not in the present moment. Awareness goes out the window and we are totally consumed by our thoughts. In an argument, both parties are likely on edge, vigilant and ready to fire the next response. Ironically, half the time, the couple has actually forgotten what they were arguing about in the first place and the argument reduces to heated shots at one another.
When we are triggered, we aren’t using the logical ‘thinking’ part of the brain. The pre-frontal cortex, the rational brain is put on standby, less oxygen is transported to this part of the brain and our emotional brain takes over. As the emotional brain is a little more primitive, it is programmed for survival and doesn’t realise that your partner chatting to the other girl at the bar is just a social response to the given situation, not them searching for a new partner and leaving you. It reacts instinctively to the situation, putting into action a train of thoughts and uncomfortable feelings, so that well before your partner returns, the blame game has kicked in, the passive-aggressive remarks commence or you might do nothing, bottle it up and stew.
Here’s where it gets interesting – what do you actually DO when you have one of these freakouts?
Do you withdraw, switch off, become passive-aggressive or do you break down and cry, start an argument or fire accusations? The second-guessing, all the what-if’s and the haphazard emotions that boil up are all pretty standard when we are in a state of reactivity. What’s important is shedding some light on our habits, our patterns of behaviour. Have you felt this way in a previous relationship? Do you want to continue to react in this manner? Or is there some deeper work that has to be done processing past issues? A large proportion of the time, our reactions are connected to past experiences and unravelling these is the first step towards being able to react differently next time.
But to have understanding of what we are doing in these situations, just isn’t enough to make that change. Trying to consciously change the way you think, force the positive or tell yourself to calm down (have you ever tried that and succeeded?!) just ain’t going to cut it.
As soon as the Emotional Brain feels threatened it is taking over, none of our good intentions and advice we gave ourselves has a chance to get realized. It is an unfair battle. All too often we cannot even catch ourselves before we are freaking out.
Beyond this, each thought carries with it a corresponding physical response in the body. When you have these thoughts, consciously or unconsciously, your body knows it, too. Our fight or flight freakouts typically circle around avoiding or escaping these sensations. That explosion of anger at your partner? You are literally blowing off the physiological steam.
So what do we do, how do we HANDLE our relationship freakouts? We’ve all been there. You think “why the hell do I act like such a crazy-ass bitch!”, “Why am I thinking this way?”. You try to consciously control your thoughts and behavior. You beat yourself up because you just can’t. And as we’ve discussed that’s because damn old Emotional Brain has gone haywire. We’ve been feeding into these chains of thoughts for so long, that as soon as your partner does the smallest thing, your mind jumps to that conclusion, you start to feel shit and the cycle continues.
Training your brain with meditation and mindfulness will help you escape the automatic reactions. As soon as you realise you are only making it worse by resisting these thoughts and forcibly trying to change them, you will find more ease and awareness. Bringing the mind back to the breath every time these negative thoughts intrude, persevering with a quiet determination, you are essentially carving new pathways in the brain and easing off the full-speed thought train. Essentially you have been exercising your mind in a maladaptive way, but you can strengthen this new way. A regular commitment to Mindfulness and meditation will help you diffuse these unproductive pathways and create the space for more reasonable responses and less reactivity!