Why We Get Stuck In An Argument, and How To Get Out

May 11, 2017 | Change, Stress

Holding on to an argument

Ever notice that when something or someone upsets you or makes you angry, it’s hard to get back to feeling calm and positive?

Even though the incident or argument is over, does your mind continue to replay what happened or think of additional reasons to be upset?

Sometimes, it’s just hard to let an issue or argument go. Sometimes, you have to get in the last word.

The automatic system

Why can’t you just let it go? Do you want to continue arguing or being upset?

It may seem that way because you’re doing or saying things that fuel your upset, but if you could step outside of it – which of course is part of the difficulty – you’d see that you don’t want to be this way, but you can’t help it.

The reason you can’t help it may just be your autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is an auto-matic nervous system; that is, it operates on its own, without conscious effort or control. ANS is in charge of functions like blood pressure, heart and breathing rates, digestion, and body temperature.

When you’ve sensed you’re under attack, when you’re in the middle of an argument or dispute, your ANS gets ramped up to defend you by quickening your heart rate and breathing, slowing your digestion, producing sweat, and so on.

Body over mind?

Instead of emotions coming from our minds, consider this: the body creates the emotion, and the mind follows.

Science writers Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee point out that this very idea was developed over a hundred years ago by psychologist William James and Carl Georg Lange. The theory is that when we feel an emotion such as fear, it’s not because our mind tells us to be afraid of – let’s say – a snake, but because your heart is racing, your breathing is shallow and quick, and your stomach is tight.

Applied to an argument or conflict, the same holds true. But when the situation is over, or the person has left the room, even though our mind knows the threat is gone, the body is still in the throws of it.

Your ANS doesn’t flip a switch to turn the body back to a normal resting state. Instead, it takes time for the body’s functions to slow and calm down. Research has also shown that it takes longer for the ANS to return to normal in women than in men.

Then, when your ANS is still in the heightened or agitated state, your brain looks for information to correspond with that. The brain notices the body’s sensations of fear or anger and seeks to justify or align with the emotion.

As Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at UCLA explains, “the mind fills an explanatory vacuum: Well, I know he apologised, but since I still feel agitated, there must be something else that I’m upset about. Ah, I know, it’s that insensitive thing he did three years ago… what a jerk.”

Letting it go

So, if it’s true that our emotions can follow a body’s system that is beyond our control, what can we do about it? Can we get better at “letting it go”?

Yes. We can always improve our responses to situations, even if we can’t control our emotions. My clients are working on this all the time.

Though the body’s ANS may be activated and keeping us in a state of anger, we do not have to act or speak from that anger; it just means that it’s harder not to.

So how do we choose not to act on the emotion?

In short, give yourself a time out.

If you remove yourself from the situation or person, you remove the risk of deepening the divide by acting from the continued emotional state. First, notice your emotional state, and then you can: take some deep breaths; count to 10; go for a walk or run; or simply leave the room.

If you’re interested in improving your overall ability to let it go and bounce back after tumult, practicing regular meditation is a tried and true strategy.

Or when all else fails, as Sapolsky says to his wife after an argument: “Remember the half-life of the autonomic nervous system.”

Photo by Ryan McGuire at gratisography.com.


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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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