You can feel it brewing in the seconds leading up to a big argument. You temper flares, you feel flushed, and you’re suddenly ready to say aloud things you know you will never be able to take back. Blow-out fights—and even regular-sized bickering sessions—can irrevocably damage relationships of all kinds. If you engage in one of them, whether with a stranger, a coworker, or a friend, you can never be quite sure of the result. You can only hope the situation doesn’t turn violent.
In those few seconds, though, you have a choice. You can’t necessarily control the situation, but can deescalate yourself. Here are some tips to help you stay calm when things het heated.
Understand why you feel the urge to fight
The urge to fight doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s a product of your temperament, your past experiences, your personal predilections, and the specific situation. Depending how all of those things work together, you may find yourself ready to throw down at a moment’s notice when you perceive a threat, feel disrespected, or sense the other person is gearing up to argue with you. While you can’t do much to avoid a spontaneous tense moment, you can learn about yourself now so you have a better understanding of your impulses when the time comes.
as success coach Ronnie Bloom explains, “Most people are familiar with ‘fight or flight’ as an adrenaline-filled reactive state we come under when we perceive a threat. [They] are part of a quartet of survival responses. The other two in the family are ‘freeze’ and ‘fawn.’ All four are instinctual responses that help us emotionally and physically survive threats to the best of our abilities.”
A “fight” instinct will lead you to take an aggressive position. A “flight” instinct will lead you to disengage entirely. A “freeze” instinct will leave you unable to respond to the perceived threat at all. A “fawn” instinct will see you trying to please the other party to avoid conflict.
Think back on how you’ve handled heated situations in the past. Have you defaulted to people-pleasing or run away? Your prior experiences play a big role in how you react in the future. In situations where things went badly for you if you became assertive or aggressive, you might have learned to avoid that path—or not. Some of us are undeterred by past results, some of us may have yet to face consequences for fighting. Spend time questioning your motives and behaviors and working to understand yourself so you can, at the very least, avoid seeking out situations where you’ll take your aggression out on someone else—which could only worsen your problems.
“In many cases, the ‘fight’ response leads to more fallout and damage than the situation already at hand,” cautioned Bloom.
Deescalation comes well before a fight begins
Self-understanding makes it easier to recognize when a tense situation is escalating to the point of aggressive conflict. Still, the point of the fight/flight/freeze/fawn framework is that these responses are largely subconscious. Much of the deescalation work comes long before a possible fight.
“The first thing I think people need to know is that if they are in ‘fight’ [mode] then it’s likely the part of their brain responsible for reason and deliberation is offline,” Bloom says. “Our brains do that so we don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis when a bear is chasing us. The reason this knowledge is so important, in my opinion—it informs us that logic and reason are not the next step. Calming down the mind-body activation of being in ‘fight’ needs to be the first priority.” It’s key for you to know you’re in “fight” in the first place, which means you have to feel it, since reasoning has left the building.
She suggested trying to bring the feeling of “fight” to your body when you aren’t actually in a fight, and noticing how it feels. Ask yourself where the feeling lives in your body—whether it has a color, whether it has a shape, if it’s heavy, if it’s tingly, or if it’s numb. Identify the way the response feels using whatever adjectives work, then memorize it.
“This is fight,” she said. “You will be able to recognize it better the next time it happens and know to begin the deescalation process.”
How to actually stay calm in a fight
While understanding the origins of the fight response is key, when theory becomes practice, there are other things you need to know and do in that moment. Bloom suggests removing yourself from the activating situation if possible, which could mean going to your room, walking outside, or heading to a bathroom stall.
“The idea is getting yourself into a space where you can safely express this instinct and then soothe,” she says. You can beat up a pillow—or even scream into it—or find another way to express your aggression. Consider opening your notes app and typing out everything you wish you could say to the other person in that moment—but don’t actually send it their way.
After you get out that aggression, take a moment to soothe yourself: try some yoga, eat a special meal, enjoy your favorite music, or do whatever makes you feel content.
“This method of safe expression and soothing gets you back into the space where reason and logic are back online and you have them at your disposal again for decision making and contemplation,” Bloom says.
Still, she notes there may be some situations wherein you can’t take off to an isolated spot. At times like that, breathe deeply and summon the best restraint you can manage until you are able to make an exit. Stay present, to the best of your ability, and remember that the fallout from pursuing the fight could be serious and long-lasting.
“Focus on the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said, referring to your eventual opportunity to extricate yourself from the situation.