Marital Conflict and the Nervous System

April 21, 2022

Hi, I’m Brittany
I'm a Christian Counselor, Couples Therapist & Christ-Centered Yoga Teacher. 


You’ve been there before—you come home stressed, your spouse says or does something that sets you off and you get angry. Maybe you yell, maybe you shut down, maybe you stonewall. You become defensive and feel like there’s no resolution. You can’t get your thoughts straight and your partner isn’t hearing what you’re saying. You notice your face becoming flushed, your heart rate increasing, maybe you want to cry or scream. What is happening within your body? Your nervous system is dysregulated.

What does our Nervous System do?

If you’re not already familiar, the Autonomic Nervous System (by definition) is “the part of the nervous system responsible for control of the bodily functions not consciously directed, such as breathing, the heartbeat, and digestive processes.” Within the autonomic nervous system, there are two subdivisions–the Sympathetic (SNS) & Parasympathetic Nervous Systems (PNS).

The SNS is the stress response in our body and is responsible for fight or flight whereas the PNS is the relaxation response in our bodies and reduces the stress response.

Whenever we encounter conflict our SNS is activated causing us to experience increased heart rate, tension, changes in breathing etc. When you are dysregulated, you can’t think your way out of fight or flight mode–the “survival” part of our brain takes over. The connections from the bottom of our brain to the front of our brain (where logic and reasoning resides), are stronger than the connections from the front of our brain to the back of our brain.

What happens when we are in a constant state of stress?

The mind-body connection is real. Anxiety, stress, and fear relating to conflict is linked to gastrointestinal issues such as heartburn, cramps, loose stools etc. Sadness, grief & disappointment may lead to a weakened immune system, fatigue, low energy, feeling overwhelmed and down, and may cause physical aches & pains.

Continuously being in a state of anger can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and headaches. Since chronic anger drain tons of mental energy, it can also lead to unhappiness and stress. Explosive anger can make permanent scars in people’s hearts and harm relationships.

5 Steps You can Take to Regulate your Nervous System

The good news is that you can learn to activate your PNS to help you calm down and think logically about the situation. It’s imperative to calm your body so that you can access the prefrontal cortex of the brain where thinking, evaluation and logic reside. Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed during a conflict, try the following:

  1. Hit the pause button. It’s ok to take a time out! Talk with your partner when you are both calm to come up with a sign that signals you need a time out. That way when you use it, you are both under the agreement to honor that time out.
  2. Take time to practice deep breathing. Intentional breathing is one of the fastest and simplest ways to access the PNS.
  3. Identify what you are feeling. Anger is often a secondary emotion. What’s going on under your anger?
  4. Identify a few things you are thankful for. Spending time thinking about thing you enjoy or are grateful for calms the nervous system.
  5. Journal your thoughts, emotions and how you might deal with the situation. Journaling helps us process the situation and visualize how we might handle the situation appropriately.

When in doubt, remember PAUSE-CALM-THINK. And if you’re having difficulty regulating your nervous system during conflict and want to learn more, reach out to Graceful Balance.

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