There’s a commercial for a phone company promoting their network coverage. A character wanders off into distant places talking on his cell phone asking, “Can you hear me now?” I recently wrote a guide on tools for communication that I use in couples counseling to help couples hear each other. However, what I see often with my Orange County clients is a struggle for individuals and couples to actually USE those tools consistently when in conflict: something gets in the way. Having also worked in private practice in Los Angeles and New York, I can assure you the struggle is not unique to you or to this area.

When a person is feeling too much stress, they go into survival mode. They will fight, freeze or run in an attempt to calm down and feel safe again. They will do or say ANYTHING at that moment that they imagine will stop the stress, even if they know it is destructive. Better communication or relationship is not even a possibility at that point and here is why. The problem is biology. Picture your brain structure as first being a central core with more automatic regulatory brain functions like breathing, body temperature, mood etc.. Wrapping around this center is a separate layer that deals mostly with higher functioning thoughts, memories, abstract reasoning and all that great stuff you learn in therapy. When overly stressed or threatened, a person operates primarily from the central automatic regulatory part of the brain, and is disconnected from higher level functioning and the reasoning. In other words, when overly stressed, all that great stuff you know and have learned from your therapist or read about in my Communication tools blog are disconnected and not available for you to use. So what then?

So the key to all communication is keeping stress to a tolerable level for both of you.  I recently wrote about a couple who did a great job of this in the midst of infidelity. Change and communication will always involve some stress because it is new and a vulnerability. Stress in unavoidable, but in reality people do their very best when they experience just enough stress to motivate and focus. Beyond this motivating level of stress, a person becomes “flooded” and shifts into survival mode. To help you and others stay in this “sweet spot” for communication, here are some tips to keep in mind.

  • Notice what “floods” you and/or your partner
    It’s going to be the same things each time. A tone of voice, a particular word, a certain environment, a particular topic. The more clear you are about what floods you, the better “map” you have for navigating around the pitfalls that create extra stress and complicate communication.
  • Learn what de-stresses you and your partner
    What do you or your partner need to calm down? A reassuring physical touch. A calming word. Quiet time alone. Time with a punching bag. A walk around the block in the beautiful Orange County sunshine (my favorite option). Be proactive in getting what each of you needs to regroup so you can continue talking.
  • Write it down
    When you have talked with your partner and have an idea what triggers each of you and what you need to de-stress, write it down. Put it on paper where you can see it regularly, or in your phone as a daily reminder. Think of it as an “in case of emergency” (ICE) map to regroup the conversation when someone is triggered. Just acknowledging the trigger for someone when they are flooded can be enough to reduce the stress level.
  • Consider a therapist to help work through the triggers
    While trigger points may never go away completely, I believe they can become less sensitive as couples work as partners in those problem areas over time. An Orange County psychologist is one option for doing this since changing and growing in trigger areas usually requires other people who can help identify and re-work those sensitivities as they are happening. Other options include one of the many support groups available around Orange County and probably in your area too. Often friends and families get uncomfortable in such stress moments and shut down rather than stay present in the midst of the stress.