Is Chronic Stress Straining Your Relationship?

By understanding your stressed-out brain, you can learn how to restore harmony.

Posted Dec 09, 2020

When life is calm, your relationship probably is too. It’s easier to get along when you’re relaxed, doing something you both enjoy, or when life is going well. It’s easy to feel more patient, flexible, and generous, and assume your partner has good intentions. In contrast, when life is stressful, you may feel impatient, unyielding, and stingy, and even see your partner as a burden instead of a joy. Here are some insights into how this happens.

Your Brain’s Job Is to Keep You Safe

Your brain is wired to ensure your survival. Your core brain, which consists of your amygdala and lower limbic system, is constantly scanning your surroundings and making instant assessments about your safety. When it perceives a threat, it jumps into action, pumping stress hormones into your bloodstream, and activating a fight, flight, or freeze response.

Sometimes This System Is Too Sensitive

This system works especially well when a threat is truly dangerous, like a bear, a warring enemy, a natural disaster, or a potential accident. Fight, flight, or freeze can save your life. But sometimes this system is too sensitive, such as when the “threat perceived” is simply your partner making an inconvenient request, questioning your decision, or voicing a different opinion. Even though your safety is not really in danger, if your core brain is triggered, you feel a jolt of stress hormones, and you experience a surge of fear, shame, or anger.

Your Core Brain Makes Snap Decisions

When your core brain perceives any threat, it does so at warp speed, with no room for assessing severity, ambiguity, complexity, or uncertainty. It also kicks your higher, thinking brain offline, ensuring quick, decisive action to secure your safety. If your thinking brain were to get involved, by the time it finished analyzing details, pondering subtleties, and weighing alternatives, you’d be toast. Furthermore, your core brain doesn’t carefully choose its reaction. It just reacts — whether you’re confronting a bear, getting cut off in traffic, or having a frustrating conversation with your partner. And unfortunately, sometimes it uses a fire hose to put out a candle.

The High Stakes of a Romantic Relationship

Have you ever noticed that your partner triggers your core brain way more than your friends and acquaintances do? That’s because a healthy romantic relationship requires that you trust and depend on each other. There is more at stake, and emotions simply run higher. Fortunately, when you’re calm and relaxed, your brain is more open, flexible, agreeable, and seeks connection. So if your partner nudges your boundaries, you might calmly say, “Sorry, I just don’t have time today/ I didn’t think of that/ I see it this way,” and you gently carve out your own space. You also feel curious about your partner’s opposing needs or perspective with the nonjudgmental attitude, “You do you; I’ll do me. How fascinating!” And harmony prevails.

What Happens When You’re Stressed Out?

When life is stressful, your core brain works overtime, scanning your surroundings for yet another threat, making your limbic system hyper-aroused, and you feeling more stressed out. As your core brain becomes dominant, your thinking brain is kicked offline more often, and you become more reactive and less creative. As you can imagine, having a stressed-out brain makes it harder to live in harmony with your partner.

Here are two specific ways your stressed-out brain messes up your interactions:

  • You tend to overreact to nonverbal communication. Your core brain always takes in nonverbal signals before your higher brain takes in the words that are being said. But when you are stressed, your perceptions are biased toward a negative interpretation of those signals. And when you are primed for detecting a threat, you are more likely to detect threats even where none exist. For instance, when you see an eye movement, you might perceive it as a dismissive eye roll. When you see a mouth movement, you might perceive it as a snarl. When you hear breath, you might perceive it as exasperation. When the door is shut behind you, you might perceive it as a slam. And then, with your core brain already triggered, you tend to perceive the words you hear as an attack.
  • You tend to take things personally. Because your intimate relationship is important to you, when your core brain is hypervigilant, you tend to experience what’s happening as highly personal, that is, happening to you and being all about you. So if your partner is running late, you might wonder if they are avoiding you or trying to mess with you, instead of simply assuming they are overextended, lost track of time, or got stuck in traffic. Or if your partner seems distracted and inattentive, you might wonder if they don’t care about you, instead of considering they have plenty on their mind. Or if your partner is grumpy, you might wonder if they’re mad at you, instead of observing that they’ve had a tough day. These stinging feelings of rejection or invalidation are triggered by your hyper-aroused core brain and limbic system, which are overwhelming the higher, more reflective and objective regions of your brain. Unfortunately, repetitive stressed-out interactions can create a vicious cycle of mutual defensiveness in you and your partner. Fortunately, there’s a way out.

Enlist Your Thinking Brain

When your stressed-out brain is pulling you into stressed-out interactions, you can develop the practice of rising above your core brain and enlisting your thinking brain. This means that whenever you perceive your partner’s behavior as a personal attack, instead of getting sucked into conflict, you can stop and contemplate the idea that your stressed-out brain could be misleading you. Imagine: If your partner’s behavior could be recorded, enabling you to view it objectively and calmly at a later time, you could be amazed at how your stressed-out brain sees threats where none actually exist and interprets behavior as being directed at you, personally, when they have nothing to do with you at all.

The next post explores soothing practices to calm your stressed-out brain, plus how to enlist your thinking brain to boost harmony in your relationship.