Love And Life Toolbox
The Under the Radar Relationship Killer

How to Give your Brain a Fighting Chance in an Argument

From your nervous system’s point of view, there are a fairly limited number of ways to respond to an argument.  You can find yourself in one of the knee-jerk reactions such as fight, flight, or freeze. You can roar and bite, you can run like hell, you can freeze like a deer in the headlights…Or, you can take a breath, and get your nervous system to smile.

I happen to follow the Dalai Lama on Twitter (well, at least, whomever he has doing his tweeting for him), and received this 140-characters-or-less piece of advice:

“How to bring a smile to peoples’ faces? If you remain stony and suspicious … very difficult! Genuine smiles only come from compassion.”

And I, being a neuro-geek, thought, Cool! The Dalai Lama is tweeting about the ventral vagus!  Bear with me.

First, we’ve typically thought that our nervous system helps to regulate our reactions to the world has been within two branches. The autonomic nervous system are where these two branches hang out. One of them works like an “accelerator” (the sympathetic branch), and tho other, the “brakes” (the parasympathetic branch). The long-held view is that that these two branches need to be in balance, to work in smooth alternating fashion, depending on the situation. Basically, in this line of thinking, our body’s challenge was to balance between vroom! and stop.

That’s true as far as it goes — but wait! There’s more! Let’s take a look at another, newer theory, from Stephen Porges, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois, about our reactions to the stress of life — and the stress of love. It’s a very helpful way to think about rewiring your body’s self-regulation, and help you have better, healthier relationships.

Porges takes the notion of “balance” between the brakes and the accelerator in a slightly different direction, one which is vastly more useful as we think about love, attachment, and relationships. His polyvagal theory suggests that there are three circuits (not just two branches), which drive one of three possible responses, depending on how we sense the relative safety, danger, or threat to life in our bodies. This is important: These sensations happen in the body and are first dealt with in the lower, non-thinking, unconscious brain — not the thinking brain (the better to stay alive — higher-level thinking slows you down, and you end up being someone’s lunch).

From your heart, stomach, and gut, the sensations zoom up your spinal cord and enter the lowest part of your brain (the brainstem), where they are immediately assessed by that fidgety alarm button, your amygdala, and other deep-in-the-brain limbic players, including your insula — all well below your conscious awareness, before you can even think about it. (In fact, some recent research has shown that your limbic brain responds to what your eyes see even before the visual part of your brain knows you’ve seen something.) Your limbic brain is what I like to call The Determinator. The Determinator makes one of three calls in the face of your body’s signals of potential danger:

  • If the Determinator judges the incoming information as life-threatening danger, one of the three parts of the circuit (the dorsal vagus, which runs between the stomach and the brainstem) leaps into action, and the body immobilizes – shuts or slows way down, basically “playing dead” to protect itself.
  • If the Determinator determines that there is danger that isn’t life-threatening, a different part of the circuit (our old friend the sympathetic branch, a.k.a. “the accelerator”) gets the body into mobilization in response to the threat – the all-too-familiar “fight-or-flight” response – which is also a way that the body tries to protect itself.
  • Finally – here’s the really cool part – if the Determinator’s assessment is that the incoming information indicates that things are safe, a third part of the circuit (the ventral vagus) essentially “turns off” the fight-flight response, and social engagement can happen – a calm state that supports being connected with others. Being in this state allows for better health, growth, and communication. This could be thought of as a third, more “advanced” method of self-preservation, and it would make sense that this would be hard-wired into our bodies just like the first two, if only for survival and evolutionary purposes.

That third part of the circuit, the ventral vagus, is a well-insulated, fast-running nerve that runs between the brainstem and the heart. Not only does it calm down the heart and lungs, but it also has a role to play in perceiving the sound of other people’s voices and their facial expressions. It activates when we perceive (again, at a level below our awareness) a softening of the facial muscles in others, and a relaxation in their tone of voice — in other words, when when our body senses that it’s safe to be connected. When the ventral vagus is “on”, we have a greater capacity to really listen, in a tuned-in way, to others.

So what you want to be able to create in your body and your brain for better relationships is a sense of greater safety — that way, fight, flight, or playing dead aren’t your only choices when things get stressful between you and your significant other.

  • In your brain: When your limbic brain — the Determinator — isn’t acting like a lone vigilante sounding the alarm at every turn, your ventral vagus can be in action more often. As a result, you’re more frequently able to recognize (and even create) a zone of safety and comfort, and be primed to engage in connection and attachment.
  • In your body: When your body’s regulation of it’s basic state of affairs – heart rate, breathing, stress-hormone levels, and so on – allows you to feel safer more of the time, you can be active and alert, in balance with feelings of calmness and receptivity, and better at social engagement – that is, being in relationship.

You can see that this can work in sort of self-perpetuating loops: In Loop A, your body perceives safety, and your ventral vagus does it’s warm-and-fuzzy thing. Your face softens, your voice is more relaxed, and the person you’re with perceives safety, too — so his face softens, his voice relaxes. Good to go.

If, instead, Loop B is in play, you move through the world with an overall sense that there’s a lack of safety, your body and brain are torqued to be hyper-sensitive to threat, your ventral vagus never gets to come out and play. And since you’re far less likely to perceive safety, your face is tight, your muscles are tense, your voice is edgy, and you’re going to have a much harder time promoting a sense of safety in the person you’re sitting with. They respond (as you can — and do — imagine) with matching guardedness and discomfort. Good times? Not.

So, being able to get unhooked from the moment in the argument, to remember who you are (not a gazelle being chased by a lion, for example, nor a wounded rabid dog who’s been cornered). Take a breath. Feel some compassion for yourself, smiling inwardly. Take another breath, and with compassion for the scared person standing across from you, smile outwardly.

There’s much more to say about this whole thing of smiling in the face of danger — I’m not advocating being a bliss-ninny when your boss is about to trounce you. I’ll be writing more about this — although it’ll probably take me more than the concise 140 characters from the Dalai Lama.

Marsha Lucas, PhD

Marsha Lucas, PhD

Marsha Lucas, Ph.D. is the author of Rewire Your Brain for love about mindfulness meditation, neuroplasticity, and how they work together in cultivating better relationships. Dr. Lucas is a licensed psychologist and neuropsychologist in Washington, DC who has been practicing psychotherapy and studying the brain-behavior relationship for nearly twenty-five years. She also regularly blogs on these topics for