• March 28, 2023

The impact of conflict on your brain

what happens to your brain when you are angry

Have you ever thought about what’s happening to your brain as it experiences conflict? Even by just understanding what your brain is doing when you are in conflict, you can create the needed framework to move towards a resolution mindset.

Our brains are designed to protect us

According to Cinnie Noble, architect of The CINERGY ™ Model for conflict management and coaching, ‘human conflict arises when one or more of our most basic needs are unheard, unmet, violated or perceived to be violated in some way.’ Noble goes on to say, that generally, our protective response is ‘fast, unconscious, incredibly powerful and often counter-productive.’

In other words, when we feel our needs aren’t being met, our values or view of ourselves is being challenged, threatened or undermined, our brain moves its focus away from the analytical areas needed to resolve conflict that are housed in the prefrontal cortex of our brain, to the area of the brain focused on the fight/flight/freeze response designed to counter incoming threats by being primed to act first, think later.

Conflict resolution skills get hijacked making it hard for the brain to regulate

Essentially, when we feel threatened or challenged a part of our brain called the amygdala becomes aroused releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol through the body, preparing us to act – to fight or flight. As our amygdala takes over we may experience a range of physical reactions such as increased heart rate, a sense of quivering in our limbs or voice, heat to our face or sweaty palms.

In addition, an active amygdala reduces the amount of energy flowing to the brain’s prefrontal cortex; that part of the brain that the helps us problem solve, reason, consider complex decisions and look at multiple perspectives. With our amygdala in a heightened activation mode due to perceived threats that conflict presents, we are prevented from accessing the very skills and tools we need (and have) to work on understanding and resolving conflict.

Neuroscience of anger vs self-regulation of mindfulness

One of the most effective ways to help calm your amygdala is to learn to notice when it has been over activated in a way that is unhelpful for the situation you are in. Being able to identify and name what is going on (i.e. I am feeling triggered right now) is a first step to being able to process our ‘instinctive’ reaction to conflict, and move to a place of curiosity, reasoning and analysis that will help a discussion or interaction about moving forward.

With practice we can teach our brains new patterns to follow.  

At this stage, science acknowledges that our external environment can have significant influence on the establishment of neural connections in our brain (a hostile workplace or home life, for example). This results in established patterns of behaviour developing in our brain – ‘go to’ paths that our brains follow.

A good way of explaining this is to use the ski run metaphor. Professor Robin Carhart-Harris, Faculty of Medicine, Dept. of Brain Sciences at imperial College London, suggests our brain is like a ski slope. ‘Ski runs’ become established as connections we form in our brains. As behavioural patterns emerge, these grooves deepen, making it more difficult to ski down the slope in a different direction because you’re basically following the runs already established through plenty of use. To change the patterns, we need to develop new habits to help our brains navigate a healthier response to stress, trauma or conflict. And we can do that by using a few simple tools to calm our brain down and redirect it from flying down the fight/flight/freeze ski run to cruising down the self-regulated and collaborative ski run.

Learn simple brain tools and use them often

Once you have noticed and acknowledged your amygdala is in overdrive, fight / flight remind yourself that your brain is in vigilant mode right now and that explains the increased heart rate and rising anger. Tell yourself you need to shift from where you are to a more rational or problem-solving mode; begin to actively work with your brain to reach an outcome, rather than unconsciously responding to it.

Mindfulness is the key to calming your brain

One of the fastest and simplest tools you can use to calm your brain is through breathing. Breathe in through the nose for four seconds, hold for two seconds then exhale for five seconds. Pause then repeat as many times as needed to slow down the physical symptoms of your amygdala in overdrive. Breathing sends a message to your brain that things are ok, enabling the brain to move from the stress response part to the analytical and reasoning part needed to resolve the conflict.

Frequency and repetition create new neural patterns in the brain

Muscles in our body need to be exercised, and the brain is no different. Learning and practising techniques to calm our brains at the sign of conflict requires us to create new ‘ski runs’ – and we do that through practice and repetition. Understanding our brain’s response to stress is the first step in changing the response to one we can use to negotiate our way through. If we can learn to do that, we can begin to understand ourselves better and in turn, effectively manage the many conflicts we encounter every single day at work, home and everywhere in between.

Author: Kris Darmody

Lawyer, Mediator, Conciliator, Conflict Coach + Family Dispute Practitioner, Fresh Start Mediation




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