Beat the Heat – How to Cool Down Your Conflicts

By Jamie C. Williamson, PhD

Beat the Heat - How to Cool Down Your ConflictsCouples tend to have more heated conflicts when it’s hot outside and when they experience life stressors.  But, fortunately, you can learn to “beat the heat” and cool down your conflicts.

We have more conflict when it’s hot because the hot temperatures interfere with mindful, sensible thinking. When we are literally overheated, our bodies automatically spend energy to cool down.  Much of that energy comes from the prefrontal cortex, which is the front part of our brain that helps us self-regulate. Research shows that when this happens, we are less able to keep our aggressive impulses in check.

Couples impacted by work or parenting stress and those who are exhausted also have more heated conflicts. Similar to being physically overheated, psychological stress and physical exhaustion can create heightened physiological arousal that interferes with mindful, constructive responses and leads to a more automatic “fight or flight” response.  Julie and John Gottman explain that this means that during intense relationship conflict when negative arousal is high, we will typically default to either (a) an attack and defend response or (b) a shutdown and withdraw response.

So, when it’s hot out (like it is now), or when you and/or your partner are stressed or exhausted, you are more likely to feel overwhelmed and have a difficult time expressing your own negative emotions constructively or dealing with your partner’s negative emotions rationally.

If you’ve noticed this happening in your relationship, rest assured that feeling “flooded” by these types of emotional and physiological responses during arguments is completely normal.  John Gottman’s research team reported that 97% of all couples, regardless of their sexual orientation, listed “flooding” during conflict as a major challenge.

Thankfully these types of responses are also predictable.  If you pay attention to your own body, you can learn to “beat the heat” by recognizing the first signs of this negative arousal and taking self-corrective action BEFORE you become overwhelmed, and “flooded” with hard-to-control emotions.

To Stop Emotional Flooding and Cool Down Your Conflicts, Follow These Steps

(1) Learn to identify the early warning signs leading to being emotionally overwhelmed or “flooded”.  The first signs that your negative arousal is too high will be unique to you but will likely include the common classic symptoms like: sweating, racing or pounding heartbeat, gritted teeth, shortness of breath, queasy stomach, or your mind is spinning.

(2) The instant you sense the presence of one of your early warning signs, STOP the discussion and ask to take a break. All your flooding signals will interfere with your ability to mindfully process information or pay attention. Instead, you will respond reflexively and either lash out with harsh words or shut down. Either of these reactions will likely invite equally negative, matching responses from your partner. To prevent this negative spiral and its aftermath, you must notice your early signs of flooding, put a stop to the conversation, and take a break. 

(3) Take a Break for at least 20 minutes. The purpose of the break is to allow you to calm down. During this time, do something that occupies your attention and is self-soothing. You might listen to music or a podcast, walk the dog, take a bath, read, meditate, or complete a mindless task.  Whatever you choose to do, be sure to do it alone, and avoid thoughts of righteous indignation and innocent victimhood.  Avoid playing out the rest of your conflict through “imaginary interaction” with your partner.  Just chill.

Don’t start your break by storming out of the room and slamming the door! Or try to get the last word in before you take a cool-down break.  That will add fuel to an already heated argument.

Instead, respectfully communicate your need to calm down. Explain that you are feeling overwhelmed and need a break. Be sure to say where you are going (e.g. for a walk) and when you will be back and ready to continue the conversation.

Say something like this:  I’m starting to feel too upset to be rational about this and I am afraid I’ll say something that I will regret. So, I’m going to walk the dog around our usual path.  When I get back, I’ll be more my normal self and ready to pick this up again.  

(4) If it is your partner who is flooding, suggest that “we” take a break. You likely recognize your partner’s early warning signs of flooding.  The minute you sense one of those signals in your partner, stop the discussion and say that “we” need to take a break.

Avoid calling attention to your partner’s negative behavior.  And avoid saying “Sweetheart, I think you’re getting too emotional (or flooded). You should take a break.”

Instead, say Sweetheart, we’re getting more heated up than we should over this. Let’s take a break and come back to this in about an hour, then we can keep talking and figure it all out.”

There are many ways for you and your partner to calm down and soothe each other.  Find something meaningful, enriching, and enjoyable that really helps calm you.

Of course, on an ideal, cool weather, low-stress day, you would plan an enjoyable, calming activity together BEFORE you have a serious discussion.

But, in the heat of the summer, when life’s stressors get the best of one or both of you, the most that you can expect of yourselves is that you cool down your conflicts and stop the flooding before it gets out of hand.

Let me know if I can help.

I’m a FL Supreme Court Certified Family Mediator and part of the Gottman Referral Network. You’ll find me at Amity Mediation Workshop, where we specialize in “friendly divorce” mediation and use the Gottman Method in our psycho-educational “Let’s Stay Together” private workshops, designed for couples who want to restore or enhance their marital happiness.  I also speak frequently on relationship topics and author the relationship blog  “Work it Out”.