How to Self-Regulate During a Difficult Conversation

Self-regulation, a theory developed by the psychologist Albert Bandura (1991) is the process by which you stabilize your nervous system by monitoring and managing your thoughts and emotions to help you choose your response as opposed to reacting out of impulse in particular situations. This makes self-regulation an essential tool for effective communication as you walk into difficult conversations with your partner. It is also a powerful tool for de-escalating heated interactions. 

Before I share tips on regulating your emotions to help you manage a difficult conversation, I will first provide context from a neurobiological perspective. When you are feeling triggered by your partner, your brain senses danger and sets off alarm bells to alert your body for survival. As a result, the amygdala becomes activated, which is the most primitive part of your brain and the one responsible for keeping you alive. The amygdala is part of your limbic system, which is part of the greater nervous system. The amygdala signals your body to release stress hormones to help you fight for survival or run to safety. As such, you are unable to communicate rationally with your partner because your mind and body have entered survival mode.

Once in survival mode, human brains are wired to respond in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. Your survival response can be influenced by what you learned from observing others around you, your attachment style, how you learned to protect yourself from emotional and physical harm, and your natural instincts. It is important to note your brain is not permanently wired any which way. The more you use it in different ways, it expands and grows – like a muscle! Therefore, you can choose to respond differently in stressful or triggering situations by unlearning old behaviors and learning new ways of responding to your partner. When you repeatedly make a choice on how you would like to respond, it helps to rewire your brain.

Before you can learn to respond differently to a situation, you first have to learn self-regulation skills which will help you monitor your thoughts and manage your emotions. Ultimately, the goal of self-regulation is to stabilize your nervous system. Once your nervous system is feeling calm and centered, your survival instincts will settle down, allowing your left (thinking) and right (feeling) brain to work in cohesion and help you choose your response.

Here are practical steps you can use to self-regulate the next time you find yourself triggered during a difficult conversation:

  1. Pause and take a deep breath. When you start to feel angry, scared, overwhelmed, or reactive in any way – pause. Engage in a mindful breathing exercise. For example, inhale slowly and deeply from your nose for four counts until your belly feels full with air. Next, hold your breath for four counts. Lastly, exhale slowly from your mouth until you count till six. Doing this as many times as you need will stabilize your limbic system where the amygdala is getting ready for a fight-flight-freeze response.

Try to tune out what your partner is saying for a few moments and focus on yourself. If you need to, and if it feels safe enough to do so, you can let your partner know you need a few moments: “I am starting to feel angry and I don’t want to say something I will regret. Please give me a few seconds.” If you need to step away for a few minutes to regulate, it is okay to do so. Make sure to communicate to your partner why you are stepping away and how much time you need so they don’t perceive you as dismissing and walking away.

Deep breathing is one of many grounding techniques you can use to stabilize your nervous system. If you don’t find breathing techniques helpful, you can try another mindfulness exercise. For example, look around and identify 10 blue objects in the room. Or, engage your five senses by identifying five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. These techniques allow your emotions to settle by shifting your brain’s focus towards something else in the present moment.

Another way to help you regulate your emotions is by shifting your attention to another sensation. Some examples are drinking a glass of water, splashing water on your face, and/or feeling something cold with your hands.

  1. Monitor yourself and attune to your needs. Once your impulse to react fades and you feel calmer, take a moment to decide what you want to achieve from this interaction. Do you want the interaction to escalate where both you and your partner walk away feeling angry or hurt? Or do you want to come to a resolution where both of you feel heard and understood? 

If you want to achieve resolution, continue regulating your emotions and be curious with yourself. Ask yourself what is making you feel upset? Look underneath the anger or the numbness you’re experiencing to discover your underlying feelings. Some examples of underlying feelings are fear, overwhelm, rejection, sadness, disappointment, and loneliness.

  1. Engage in self-dialogue or self-soothing. When you are able to identify the underlying feeling(s), engage in a conscious thought process where you name what you are feeling and the possible consequence of reacting to your feeling impulsively.

Some people find it helpful to create phrases, mantras, prayers, or self-affirmations ahead of time so they can remind themselves during triggering situations. When your emotions take over and your brain enters survival mode, your ability to think can be diminished. Therefore, having gentle reminders to refer to can facilitate the process of self-regulation. It can also be useful to note down these reminders somewhere you can easily access them. For example, the reminders can be placed somewhere in the kitchen, on a mirror, on your bedside table, or on your phone. I suggest communicating your intentions to your partner if you plan on stepping away to read these reminders.

If it feels too difficult to access your thoughts during a heated interaction, self-soothing can also be an effective strategy. Self-soothing is any kind of touch which brings you comfort. Some examples include:

  • Gently holding your hands or rubbing them together
  • Placing your hands on your cheeks
  • Touching an object which brings you comfort, such as your ring or necklace
  • Feeling something cool or warm around you
  • Feeling a different texture, such as your hair, your shirt, or the couch you are sitting on

4. Choose how you will respond. Hopefully, you are feeling more regulated after following the first three steps. With increased self-awareness and the ability to think more rationally, explore your options and choose how you would like to respond to your partner. For example, you may decide to validate your partner.

To ensure you maintain a regulated stance, make sure to repeat these steps as needed during the exchange with your partner. You don’t have to do all the steps every time you find yourself becoming reactive. Engage in whichever step feels accessible and helpful in the heat of the moment.

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