Inner Trek

Therapy Questions: Episode 7

Therapy Questions: Relationship Conflict and Shutting Down

 
 

Hey everybody, my name is Dana Mooney, licensed mental health counselor with Inner Trek, LLC. And welcome to TherapyQuestions. This is episode number 7, where I answer your questions that I get as a therapist.

So today's question is about relationships and conflict. The question is: "Sometimes when I get into fights with my partner I just get overwhelmed and I shut down, which makes them feel even more upset and hurt. I just don't know what to do when there's too much emotion or intensity. What can I do?" Okay so I want to talk about this in two parts. The first part is going to be about the brain in the body and like what's actually happening in this scenario, and then I'll talk about some strategies on what to do when this occurs.

So the first thing I want to talk about is fight-or-flight. So it sounds like what's happening is you're getting into the conflict with the partner and your brain is sensing there's some kind of danger there's some kind of threat that's happening. And then it goes,  "Okay I know what to do when there's a threat or a danger. I'll fire up my sympathetic nervous system and we're gonna either fight or we're gonna flight, we're gonna get the heck out of there, or we're gonna freeze, and I'm just gonna shut down and disengage from the conversation until the threat goes away." And this is a really great protective strategy that we evolved to survive. Really so, your body's really, I mean you should thank your body for doing such a great thing to help protect yourself. But then it can kind of get into get get you into some sticky spots when the stimulus is not actually dangerous but your brain is perceiving that it is.

So before I get into strategies I guess what I want to say is ask yourself when you're calm, when you're not in a place of conflict, ask yourself, "Is the situation actually dangerous? is my partner being threatening to my my body, my autonomy? Are they being emotionally manipulating? Are they being verbally aggressive or berating?"  Anything that might be actually threatening to to me is something that may be your fight-or-flight response is it actually protecting you from. So if that's the case and you say, "Yeah maybe, maybe I am actually in danger." Then the course would be to actually listen to that fight-or-flight response and perhaps get out of the situation. Something to think about.

If when you're thinking about it rationally you go, "No it's not actually dangerous I think I'm just perceiving it that way." That's something a little different. Sometimes that can happen if there's a history of trauma. Sometimes that can happen if there is maybe some some like dysfunctional dynamics that happen in past relationships or maybe there was a lot of tension or argument or anger or there was some unsafe situations in caregiver relationships when you're growing up. And so where there might have actually been danger before, your brain remembers that and goes, "Ah, I know what to do in this situation. I'm gonna protect you by doing these things. But now in this new situation that looks vaguely like those other situations, but actually isn't dangerous because you decided that when you when you weren't flooded, your brain is firing when it's not necessary. This kind of like flooding response. And so the things that I recommend usually are soothing.

Okay so their self-soothing that we can talk about, and there's also partner soothing. So self-soothing can look like a lot of things. It can look like your standard self-care. It can be like going to take a shower. It can be like you know, making yourself a meal that you really enjoy. It can be going for a walk. It can be going on a bike ride. A lot of times getting moving getting exercising, getting doing something you can get into your body like yoga, something like that that will help you to sort of soothe that sympathetic nervous system and get the cortisol hormones that have been released into your body, that stress hormone to kind of work through the body and getting lower down little bit. Anything that's gonna be soothing for you do that and you can do that on your own.

Partner soothing then is a little bit different so this can be things that you talk with your partner about and say, "Hey if you notice that I am flooded..." And this will take a little bit of self-awareness on your part, so thinking about what does it look like when I'm flooded? What does it feel like? For some people it looks like this like intense more elevated breathing for some people it looks like more shallow breathing for some people it looks like their skin gets flushed or they get sweaty clammy for some people it looks it feels like muscle tension like your shoulders will lock up or neck maybe your jaw is clenched like this, and so whatever it looks like for you your flooding, noticing that for yourself so that you can identify it and then telling your partner about what that looks like too. So that when you're flooded either you or your partner both of you are flooded, you can kind of put the conversation on pause and come back to it.

Because once that happens and the sympathetic nervous has system has taken over it shuts down the non-essential parts of the brain for survival. And non-essential means your prefrontal cortex which has to do with your planning and your executive functioning, your thinking and so your ability to actually reason through a thing rationally, and make complex sentences about it, and challenge your emotional response. It's gonna be gone because your brain just shut it off because you're trying to survive.

So when that happens it's important to notice it and it's important to maybe identify some things that your partner can do to help soothe you. You want to probably do this when you're not already in conflict. So this can be a separate, like a separate conversation that you have with them and say, "Yeah it's really soothing to me when, if you just give me a hug and we don't talk for a minute, or maybe we just hold hands." Or if touch doesn't feel good when you're feeling over overstimulated maybe just like, "If you could make me some tea." Just whatever the thing is that you think would help for your partner to do when you're feeling overstimulated you can tell them. And then suddenly what you're doing is you're training your brain to go, "Ah this is not a threatening person. This is a person who's caring for me. This is a person who's soothing me." And so it's sort of starting to retrain your brain to connect your partner with non-threatening.

So these are some things that you can do to sort of break that cycle, because it can become a cycle. And I want to talk about that importance of coming back. So sometimes when this happens over and over again you go, "I want to just avoid that conversation altogether." And the problem that can happen is your partner will get more upset and frustrated because they won't feel heard, because you keep running away. And so if you determine hat this really isn't a dangerous situation for you, the thing that you can do is come back and know that you're going to experience some anxiety. Know that it's going to be uncomfortable, but exposing yourself and having experiences that you can lock away in your brain and go, "Okay I got through this conversation even though it was difficult." or "I got flooded and then my partner could soothe me and it was okay and then we got through the conversation. Maybe we didn't find resolution, but I had the conversation and nothing bad happened." Having those experiences to challenge your past experiences in super super super helpful to have more positive interactions in the future. So those are some strategies and I hope that that's helpful.

I hope that provides a little bit of understanding of what's going on. if you have any questions for me that you'd like to see me answer on Therapy Questions, you can put them in the comments, you can email them to me at InnerTrekLLC@gmail.com, or you can put them in the submission form on my website at innertrekLLC.com. Thank you so much for watching, and be well!