Your good friend says something hurtful. Your partner seems remote and uninvolved. Your coworker makes a new demand when you're already overwhelmed.
Stress hormones flood your body, shutting down the rational part of your brain, the neocortex. In an instant, you react:
You insult your friend back, or give them the cold shoulder. You accuse your partner, or withdraw from them. You resentfully accept the additional work, or blow up at your co-worker.
In every case, instead of helping you, your internal fight, flight, or freeze reaction makes your situation worse. You become a captive of your own reactivity. I see this scenario often in my work with individual counselling, couples counselling, and anger management therapy.
But mindfulness is the opposite of reactive behavior. Through mindfulness, you can learn to catch and control the impulse that short-circuits your fight, flight, or freeze response. Specifically, these three steps could keep you from escalating a situation—and potentially save your relationships:
1. Find out what provokes you.
Ask yourself: When do I feel the hottest anger? When do I just want to be alone? When do I feel paralyzed to respond? Once you know and understand what primes your stress response, you'll have an easier time stopping yourself from reacting impulsively.
2. Catch the impulse that precedes your response.
There is always an impulse––a sensation that rises up through your body––that precedes any reaction. Mindfulness can help you identify the clues that alert you to your coming anger—rapid heartbeat, feeling hot, raising your voice, clenching your jaw, irritability, or a monotone voice. When you can pick up on these warning signs, you can give yourself time to make a deliberate choice. In that moment, you are practicing anger management.
3. Control the impulse.
The goal is to stay in your body and stay in the present. If you're quick to fight, give yourself a time-out: Close your eyes. Take slow, deep breaths. Repeat to yourself something that reminds you it's OK to sit with your emotions, like, What I'm experiencing is anger. Anger is natural. Feeling anger won't hurt me. If you're quick to flee or freeze, ground yourself in the moment: Literally wrap your arms around yourself and hug your body tightly or grip your toes to the floor. And keep your eyes open. Whichever method helps you, give it time to let it work: Count to 10, 20, 30, whatever you need.
I learned these three simple three steps through working with individuals and conducting couples counselling and anger management classes in Los Angeles over the last two decades. By identifying what provokes you, learning to recognize when anger is on its way, and restraining yourself from impulsively responding to every perceived threat, you can save your relationships from destructive reactions.
In other words, practicing mindfulness can free you from fight, flight, or freeze. Mindfulness enables you to calm down, stay in the moment, and choose a response your hunter-gatherer ancestors would be proud of.