Relationship expert Terry Real calls it “the whoosh.”
It can happen at any time: Your partner criticizes the meal you spent all afternoon preparing. Your friend promised to be on time but is 20 minutes late. Your colleague blames you for something while CC’ing your supervisor.
Any time you have a strong, sudden emotional reaction, that’s the whoosh.
The whoosh can actually be quantified. Juliane Taylor Shore, a therapist who specializes in interpersonal neurobiology, mentioned in a recent workshop with Real that the whoosh can happen in as little as 1/12 of a second. This is because it activates our brainstem—the older, primitive part of the brain that’s meant to ensure our survival. It’s actually impressive: If a wild animal were to rear up in front of us, we’d be off and running before we consciously knew what was happening.
But this doesn’t serve us in our relationships. Self-protection doesn’t take the other person into account, and it often means lashing out or shutting down. These reactions rarely support our bonds with others, or our longer-term goals. Let’s take the cooking example: If you want your partner to be more appreciative of your efforts, then snapping back, "At least my meals are edible!" won’t help. If you’re able to wait until your evolutionarily newer and more regulatory neocortex can kick in, then you can take a moment to calm yourself before making an active decision about how you’d like to respond. This may mean sharing how much her criticism hurt, and asking for more thoughtfulness in the future.
There are two benefits to this practice. One is that you’re able to take a larger view of the situation and decide how to get what you want in a way in which the other person will be able to hear you. The second is that if you’re able to get to a state of calm, your self-regulation will most likely soothe the other person and get their own neocortex to take over. If they did something thoughtlessly or rudely, they could very well have been dealing with their own whooshes.
It sounds simple, but the truth is that cooling yourself down in the midst of feeling angry or upset is an extremely difficult task. But it is possible. Here’s a quick 3-part exercise that may help you to break this down in the moment.
- Notice the whoosh. Wow. That comment of his about my “little art project” was so dismissive. That really triggered me.
- Cool down. I’m going to say I need to grab more hot water for my tea so that I have a few minutes to calm down. It seems like he’s in a bad mood today; maybe this isn’t about me.
- Figure out your aim. I’m going to stand up for myself by calmly letting him know that this project is important to me. I'm then going to strengthen our relationship by asking how his day has been.
Remember, this internal redirect isn’t easy. You may find that at first you’re only able to catch yourself after you've reacted. But with time and practice, you should be able to notice strong emotions that arise, and take a timeout in order to get your neocortex get back online.