Angry? Try taking some space.

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Angry? Take some space. - Mark Ettensohn, Psy. Sacramento Psychologist

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It happens to everyone. When we fight with a loved one it is easy to lose sight of the big picture.

We feel absolutely sure that we are correct, that the other person is wrong, and that we need to have this simple fact understood. Sometimes, we can go for hours this way. By the end of it we can’t even remember what we were arguing about in the first place.

Anger, fear, and frustration narrow perspective. They originate in parts of the brain that evolved much earlier than the parts that are responsible for rational thinking. Our ancestors evolved to react to perceptions of threat, not sit down and think things through. While this made good sense in the primeval forest, it can really get in the way in modern life.

So how do we rein in our primitive brains during an argument and allow more space for the rational parts? Practice.

Having perspective while calm is great, but not much help if we never practice finding perspective when upset. The trick is to practice recognizing that we are becoming upset before we get to a point of no return, when our actions are driven by uncontrollable emotions and we say and do things we will later regret.

Try this:

Next time you begin to feel escalated (angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed), intervene before it gets out of control.

1. Excuse yourself from the situation. If you are in the car, respectfully but firmly tell your loved one that you need a minute to calm down. If you are at home, inform the other person that you need some space, but that you will talk about it later. Then leave the room.

2. During this time notice how you are becoming escalated: pay attention to your breathing. Regulating your breath is the easiest way to regulate your whole sympathetic system (the system that causes the feelings you have when you are angry or afraid).

Take slow, deep breaths. Focus on the breaths, not on the thoughts that are making you upset. This is difficult to do at first, but remember that the urgency you feel to make your point is caused by your body’s arousal system – your body doesn’t recognize the difference between an argument and a hungry predator, so it wants to act immediately. Remember that you have time to calm down, and that if you do you will be thinking much more clearly.

With practice, you may find that you won’t need to take physical space, but can calm yourself while still engaged in the conversation.

3. When you are calmer, you can re-engage. Now, you’ll be much better equipped to have a discussion from which both you and your loved one can benefit.


When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear.”

– Mark Twain

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