Conflict panic

I just want to briefly give an analogy of the cycle of conflict. Sometimes the fear of detachment or conflict throws people into an absolute panic. The distance, emotional unavailability or conflict may be triggering something emotional, which could be the need:

  • to feel valued
  • loved
  • worthy
  • safe
  • acceptable

During conflict panic, any silence, emotional distance or argument feels unbearable. The urge is to resolve it as soon as possible and get closer. The silences have to be filled, with talking, texts, e-mails, letters. The conflict has to be resolved. The more the conflict lingers or the other person draws away, the more intense the feelings of panic.

When the emotional brain panics, it can be like being in a room you know really well, and a small fire starts. Instead of putting it out or leaving the room, you panic and start waving about, making the fire worse, until you cannot see the exit. This is what happens when you feel emotionally triggered. Panic can cause a reactive response, like:

  • shutting down
  • sending a text/e-mail then wondering 'why did I send that?'
  • squaring up and hollering flying owls
  • uncontrollable crying out to be helped/rescued

In that panic, it is difficult to see why the other person does not understand the emotional need. It is also difficult to see that the panic is increasing the flames of conflict/distance. The emotional panic can create physical sensations, racing heart, fluttering stomach, shallow breathing, and it can feel distressing, so the panicked reaction is often to try and stop the thoughts and physical feelings of distress.

Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect, creating a vicious cycle, e.g. the initial need to feel loved? Send a text saying “You don’t care about me” so the other person ‘understands’ that you need reassurance. The receiving party takes this as an attack and reacts too; “if you feel like that it is better we don’t meet on Saturday?". This ‘proves’ unlovable and increases the need to be loved and physical feelings, and thoughts become intolerable. The comes the write of another text/letter/call, getting drunk etc.

Let’s return to the room with the fire in; if you were to stop panicking and trust yourself, you know the layout of the room very well, you know the exits with your eyes closed, you have a map of it ingrained in your head - you know it so well. If you stop panicking, stop trying to resolve the fire quickly with a panicked reaction, take a deep breath and a little distance from the situation, you can find the door and leave the room. Imagine the room is part of you. You know yourself better than anybody else can know you. If you can take a deep breath and step back from the conflict, observe the situation with some distance, seeing what emotions are being triggered; this may give some perspective and a less reactive response. Although it may not stop the distress, being less reactive will not fuel and increase the distress.

Instead of reacting immediately, do something physical - go for a walk, swim, jog, dance, or go to the gym. Remind yourself the drive to react is your emotional brain, not your logical brain. Write three times “I need...”. Completing the need, do the same with “I feel...”, then write the ‘story’ of what is happening based on my feelings versus the reality. For example, “my sister has rejected me, we are never going to speak again, I will be all alone with nobody to understand me”, versus “my sister was late when we last met and I snapped about it, I text her to apologise but she hasn’t replied - we will catch up next week”.

Sleep on it before responding when you feel you have more distance and logic. Be aware when your emotional brain is panicking and recognise no matter how distressed the panic feels, you can manage the conflict better with some distance, without the panic. Be your own best friend. In times of panic, be kind to yourself, reassure yourself, do things and spend time with people that feel comforting and safe. To get some distance from the conflict, imagine this is not about you and your partner, friend, son, mother, family or social group, but that you are advising others.

Therapy can be a space to explore relationships and overwhelming feelings.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Alsager, Cheshire, ST7
Written by Jacqueline Karaca, M.Sc. Hons Counselling Psych; B.Sc.Hons Psychology MBACP Reg
Alsager, Cheshire, ST7

Jacquie Karaca is a psychotherapist and author. She practices individual and relationship counselling in Alsager.

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