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Who’s In Control of Conflict in Your Relationship – You or Your Brain?

Why does reactivity hijack our communications with loved ones? Just the slightest comment seems to set us off at times.

When elevated levels of fear flood the brain’s communication network, the “fight or flee” response gets activated. The stress hormone cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system.

For example, when faced with an impending threat, such as a swerving car, the subconscious mind activates the limbic brain’s 24/7 fear-alarm, the amygdala, to switch on the body’s sympathetic nervous system, or “fight or flee” reaction, with the release of hormones, such as the stress chemical cortisol.

The result?

While this prepares the body to not only act swiftly, but also with superhuman strength to fight or run away, it also disturbs its balance. The part of the brain that runs the autonomic functions of the body has just hijacked all its systems, to include your ability to engage in logical thinking!

It does so for good reason!

This supports your chances of surviving danger. (In intimate conflicts, the “enemy” is usually an opposing view, idea, etc.)

The problem is two-fold.

For one, neither one of the options are viable. Secondly, you and your loved one absolutely need the reflective thinking abilities of your brain to communicate effectively!

What decides whether you remain calm or get reactive?

The wiring of your brain makes you a learning machine, except that is when you do not feel safe in which case learning mode is switched to protective mod. Learning means opening yourself up to a wide array of information. This includes information that can give you feel-bad feelings.

Most of the processes involved in adapting to new changes, or expanding, strengthening or weakening an existing behavior occur subconsciously.

As the subconscious does no original thinking of its own, however, it is qualitatively neutral. It performs to strengthen or weaken behaviors  automatically. It follows what it thinks are your commands. In truth, it responds the way in which you have subconsciously conditioned it to respond.

The human brain is always in one of two modes: “learning” or “protective” mode. Emotions are signals that decide whether the brain operates in either a “learning mode or in a “protective mode.”

“It is through ‘molecules of emotion’ that our brain, glands, organs, and immune system are in constant communication,” says Dr. Candace Pert in her book, Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine.

Emotions are molecules of energy that move in one of two overall directions, safety and love, or anxiety and fear.

They either disturb this balance of energy, as occurs with painful emotions rooted in fear, or they restore this balance of energy, as happens when we experience emotions that produce pleasant love-based sensations.

Fear doesn’t have to control us. The direction fear takes us, depends on our response.

Simply put, whereas love-based emotions calm your mind and body, elevated levels of fear shut down the learning processes and redirect energy to prepare the body for survival.

Thoughts cause emotions, however.

Your subconscious monitors your thoughts, 24/7, and activates the emotional flow of energy and information accordingly. Fear inducing beliefs or interpretations of events activate your survival response—every time—unless of course you know how to consciously manage your emotional responses! If you tell yourself that anger means your partner doesn’t value you, for example, this is likely to activate enough anxiety to activate your survival reaction.

So, what can you do so that you, and not fear, control the direction of your communications?

  • Identify any fear-inducing beliefs and replace them with life enriching ones.

This disallows fear from blocking the amazing abilities of your brain to think, imagine and make wise choices. By directing the focus of your attention, accordingly, you can energize your brain to heal and transform itself for optimal change

  • Examine the validity of limiting thoughts.

This builds your understanding and the passion and energy you need to take action to replace them. Your thoughts create emotional ‘standards’ that can either free or limit your heart and choices. Make them liberating.

  • Practice acceptance and empathic compassion for yourself.

This does not mean you disown responsibility for your actions. Rather that, you are more likely to relate in ways that strengthen your relationships and enrich your life, when you consciously treat yourself with compassion—unconditionally.  Set an intention to become more aware and conscious of your choices in moments of decision.

The bottom line is that if you want to control whether your brain remains in learning or protective mode during conflict, rather than leave old belief systems and fear in charge, you alone have the power to chose a calm, confident state of mind.

Conflicts can be seen as opportunities to better understand both your self and another. In relationships fast is slow, and slow is fast. Treating another, as you would want for your self, with dignity is a key that opens hearts and allows you to meaningfully connect in ways that mutually grow your wisdom and understanding.

The fast track to be understood is to seek a compassionate understanding.


”Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.” 

Who is in charge of your brain?

Who’s In Control of Conflict in Your Relationship – You or Your Brain?

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2011). Who’s In Control of Conflict in Your Relationship – You or Your Brain?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 7, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Nov 2011
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