Disagreements are a normal part of life, but that doesn’t make them easy or pleasant to deal with.
Whether it’s a fight with your partner or friend, an argument with a family member, or a clash with a colleague, even relatively civil disagreements can leave a sour taste in your mouth. When hurtful words are exchanged or when disagreements become highly emotional, these confrontations can leave you feeling gutted.
Disagreements can create a strong emotional response, especially when they change the course of a relationship. You may feel as if you’ve been deceived or rejected, or as if you and the person you’re disagreeing with can never find common ground again.
There’s no shame in getting emotional after a disagreement. Whether it’s a pounding heartbeat, a sense of distress, anger, or the need to cry, your emotional responses are valid.
The problem is that our strong emotions can sometimes muddy our thinking and make it difficult to move on or learn from a difficult situation in a constructive way. They can even lead us to worsen our relationships by causing us to say things we don’t mean or will regret.
In this post, we’ll explore some helpful tips for calming down from a disagreement, both in the immediate aftermath and further on into the future. Keeping these steps in mind may help you deal with disagreements in a more positive way, helping to sustain your relationships and your mental health.
Our emotional responses aren’t like light switches. As much as we may sometimes want to, we can’t turn our feelings off at will.
After a heated argument, many people experience physical responses along with intensely negative emotions. That’s because of the way our brains work. In stressful situations, a neurotransmitter called cortisol is released, making it difficult to exercise executive functions (like making decisions or exercising compassion.) Instead, the amygdala--a brain structure that is responsible for managing our emotions--is primed. This leads to what’s popularly known as a “fight or flight” response. In this situation, we might escalate the argument (fight) or back away by freezing up, reverting to agreement, or even simply leaving the room (flight).
After the argument, taking time to breathe and collect yourself isn’t an indulgence. It’s actually necessary, because your brain and body alike need time to return to more typical states. Sustaining the acute, emotional, fight-or-flight response for longer isn’t healthy or even feasible (remember “homeostasis” from high-school bio?)
So allow yourself to consciously take time to calm down. Using breathing exercises and mindfulness techniques can be an excellent way to harness the body’s biology to calm down physically as well as mentally. Taking deep breaths and relaxing your muscles will help to signal that you’re not in danger.
It may feel helpful to be alone while you actively work to calm yourself down. If you can, find your own private space to do so. When that’s not possible--if you’re at work, for example, or at a family gathering--try finding a quiet spot, like a hallway or bathroom.
If possible, going for a walk can be an excellent way to calm down while staying out of your mind and keeping your body healthily engaged. Try focusing on the environment around you--the trees, other people, the sky--to prevent ruminating and remaining upset.
Once you feel calmer, it’s important to process the argument so that it’s no longer weighing on your mind. If it’s possible, consider writing in a notebook. Journaling may help you organize your thoughts, and summarizing what happened may help you move on from it in a more positive way.
A disagreement may expose deeper issues within a relationship. Perhaps you feel as if you and your partner are not aligned on fundamental values. Or maybe you’re arguing more frequently with a friend or family member, and you’re worried that the relationship is fraying.
Regular disagreements or fights may also be a sign that your own mental health needs attending to. Irritability can be a symptom of a broader condition--such as depression or anxiety--and fixing this root cause may help you avoid arguments in the future.
Analyzing a disagreement as objectively as possible can help to ensure that you don’t push down the memory of a fight--instead, you can actively address it. Ask yourself:
Remember to be gentle with yourself--don’t beat yourself up or force yourself to make decisions straight away. Arguments and disagreements happen to all of us; they’re not a source of shame, and they can even strengthen our relationships by pushing us to reaffirm commitment or open up more.
If you find yourself upset from disagreements started by an insistent or even abusive relationship, it’s important not to place blame on yourself. You’re never responsible for someone else’s behavior. Reflecting on the argument will simply help you to adjust your own reactions and your mindset.
Calling a trusted friend or discussing the incident with your therapist can also be enormously helpful. Finding a calm, non-judgmental confidante who can lend an ear--and offer advice--may allow you to draw conclusions from the disagreement and to find much-needed emotional support. Therapists can also help you place the argument into larger patterns of your behavior and your relationships.
One of the best ways to cope with difficult disagreements is actually preventative. Having a consistent self-care plan in place will strengthen your resilience and reaffirm that you are strong and capable in the face of arguments.
Too often, it’s easy to slip into a reactive model of mental health: only thinking about our mental well-being when arguments or difficult moments arise. Practicing regular self-care helps address this by developing strong, stable mental health before crises occur. Think about it as strengthening your mental immune system: when colds and flus hit, you’ll be better equipped to handle them.
Finally, it can be helpful to prepare for disagreements by envisioning your next steps. This is particularly useful when you know you’ll be entering a high-stress environment--trips home for the holidays are a common example of a time when arguments might flare.
To get ready, create a mental checklist of the steps you’ll follow to defuse and bounce back from an argument. Your plan could be as detailed as imagining a specific place you’ll walk to, the breathing exercises you’ll perform, and the friend you’ll text or call for support. Having a calm fallback plan for the aftermath of an argument can help you preserve your mental health even through emotional disagreements.