Instant way to stop a fight- hack your brain, Tom Bruett Gay couples counseling, therapy, conflict

Instant way to stop a fight- hacking your brain to get better at conflict

Ever wonder if you could hack your brain so that you and your partner can become better at conflict?  Ever wonder if you could instantly stop a fight? Good news!  You can. 

Things are getting out of hand

If you’ve been there, you know.  Our imaginary couple Ralph and Andy have been here before.  Ralph says something about the cleanliness of the bedroom and it hits Andy the wrong way.  Andy gets defensive and makes a comment about how Ralph did the laundry incorrectly.  Before they know it voices have been raised and the temperature is rising.  Their unique cycle has started and if they don’t take an exit ramp soon, it’s not going to end pretty.

Hand model of the brain

Dan Siegel is psychiatrist who has done much great work understanding the way the brain works and how to leverage that knowledge to improve human connections.  He uses the hand as a quick way to demonstrate the major parts of the brain like the prefrontal cortex (the orchestra conductor) and the limbic system (which manages the fight, flight and freeze response). 

As a way to visualize this, make a fist with your hand and keep your thumb tucked under your four other fingers.  The four fingers represent the prefrontal cortex and your thumb represents your limbic system. 

Thumbs out

When someone get’s activated, like Ralph and Andy did in the example above, that means that your limbic system has gotten fired up.  This is a great thing if you’re running from a bear that is about to attack and eat you. Not the sexy muscle bear you’re hoping will…sorry, I couldn’t help myself. Anyway it’s not always the best if your limbic system gets activated when you’re trying to have a constructive conversation with your partner.  When that happens, your thumb is out and your prefrontal cortex is offline and your lid has been flipped.  When your thumb is out, your thinking brain is offline and it’s hard to make the best decisions or even calm yourself down.  

Everyone is different

One thing to remember is that everyone’s brain is different.  Let’s say Ralph had a history of growing up in a household where his father was an alcoholic and would get angry and violent when he drank.  This will impact the way that Ralph’s brain, and specifically his thumb, reacts when he feels threatened.  And let’s say Andy grew up in a household where conflicts were avoided and things were swept under the rug.  This will also impact how he deals with conflicts as an adult. 

Window of tolerance

The window of tolerance is another Dan Siegel term that refers to the optimal state when our brains and nervous systems are at their best.  Your thumb is tucked in and your frontal cortex is online.  You’re able to stay curious and not get defensive.  You’re calm and centered and able to have productive conversations with your partner.  If Ralph and Andy had both been inside their window of tolerance things wouldn’t have escalated.  The easiest way to think about this is to picture a sprectrum with the window of tolerance in the middle (optimal arousal) with hyperarousal on one said and hypoarounsal on the other.  

What happens when you get triggered? 

Using the example above, let’s say that both Andy and Ralph got triggered from the argument they were having.  When someone gets emotionally flooded and moves outside their window of tolerance they can become either hyperaroused or hypoaroused. 


Let’s imagine that Andy who grew up in a conflict avoidant household typically shuts down when he gets triggered.  This can be similar to the “freeze” response described above.  When he moves outside of his window of tolerance he can’t think, checks out and becomes very passive.   This is an example of what hypoarousal looks like. 


Ralph responds in a totally different way.  He becomes hyperaroused.  This is more similar to the “fight” response.  His mind moves quickly and it’s tough for him to calm himself back down.  Sometimes he gets angry and things escalate quickly.

Instant way to stop a fight

There are lots of things you can do when either of you moves outside your window of tolerance during a conflict. 

First off, when you’re having a conflict with your partner and you notice that either of you has moved outside your window of tolerance, it’s time to pump the breaks and take an exit ramp that will lead you out of the conflict.  As I described before, when you’re triggered your frontal cortex, or the orchestra conductor inside your brain has gone out for a smoke break.  There’s no point in trying to continue the conversation until you’re both calm and your brain is back online. 

Take a time-out

A time-out is an excellent way to slow things down and take an exit ramp.  Time-outs can be tough in the moment, but they will save you so much grief in the long run.  One of the most important things you can remember is that if one of you calls for a time-out, that’s it.  The conversation is over.  You don’t get one more comment.  You don’t throw out one more insult.  You stop talking and respect the time-out.  It takes a lot of courage to call one in the moment and you want to honor the work your partner is putting into trying to change the negative cycle. 

If you like what you’re reading here and find it useful, join my email list to stay up to date with new videos and resources you can use today to improve your relationship.  I will be launching a course soon that will offer more in depth coaching and resources for stopping conflict in it’s tracks.  Till then, be kind to one another. 

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Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett, LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist with an office in Denver, Colorado. He works virtually with folks in California and Colorado. Tom feels passionately about helping people have better relationships. The purpose of this blog is not to provide advice or to take the place of working with a mental health professional. For more information please visit the homepage.