A 6-Step Method For Not Losing Your Cool During An Argument

Staying levelheaded during an argument requires outsmarting your limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. It's not easy, but it can be done with practice.

by Chase Scheinbaum
Originally Published: 
Man staring at camera with calm demeanor

There you are having a discussion with your spouse when something is said that causes a white-hot anger to rise inside of you. Before you know it, spittle is flying, many stupid things are being said, and a morning at Ikea turns into something resembling a boxing weigh-in. No one wants to get angry during an argument, but cooler heads don’t always prevail.

What you can do, however, is train yourself to avoid the behavior. Anger is a built-in survival tool and fighting such a baser instinct can sometimes feel futile. This doesn’t have to be the case. Staying levelheaded requires outsmarting your limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, says Jonathan R. Bennett, a certified counselor and coach behind The Popular Man.

“Regulating the emotions is tough because it comes from a part of our brain so fundamentally tied to survival instincts,” he says. “But it can be done, especially with practice.”

Here are some ways to defuse your anger and keep your baser instincts from taking over.

1. Try to Stop the Downward Cortisol Spiral

“We really can’t help what we feel initially. It’s going to come whether we like it or not,” Bennett says. “How we deal with it is most important.” As soon as something triggers you and a reaction begins, physiology takes over: adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone, begin to flow. At that point, you’re basically a wounded animal. “Once you start feeling the emotion welling up, you have to stop it immediately,” says Bennett. “Otherwise it’ll spiral out of control.”

2. Say Something About the Emotion

Take stock of what’s happening the instant the hairs on your neck stand up. We all know what anger feels like. Now you need to say something out loud about it, such as: ‘I know I’m getting angry.’ “That takes it from being a visceral reaction and puts it into the conscious mind,” says Bennett. “Even just whispering it to yourself to hear yourself saying it is a starting point.”

3. De-escalate Yourself

Okay, so you acknowledged that you’re angry. Now, you try to talk yourself down. This is called de-escalation, which is a fancy term for cooling off. “For some people, it might be deep breaths or stepping away from the situation,” Bennett says. “You can say, ‘Hey, I’m going for a drive. Or retreat to your den to read or do something at the workbench.’” Whatever your preferred method is, tell your partner why you’re angrily switching on the buzz saw and need to cool off. “You don’t want it to look like you’re storming off,” he adds. “They should be aware that it’s contributing to a positive outcome.”

4. De-escalate Your Partner

Some extremely important advice: Never say the words “calm down” to the person you’re arguing with. Instead, focus on speaking calmly yourself. “When dealing with hostile people you never want to return the hostility,” says Bennett. “People in a fight will mirror the other person’s anger. When you react angrily it only makes them angrier.” By staying calm and relaxed you’re in turn going to calm your partner down.

5. Reinterpret the Event

Once you’ve been triggered by something and stopped short of blowing a fuse, the next step is to reinterpret the trigger. “The way our emotions arise from our interpretation of events is very automatic,” Bennett says.

He offers this example: You walk in on your spouse and they quickly hide their phone. You think that means they were texting someone they shouldn’t have, but it’s just as possible she was ordering an anniversary gift. “If you can find a way to reinterpret the event it can help regulate those emotions from the beginning as opposed to assuming something that makes you fly off the handle,” says Bennett. “This allows time for calmly gathering facts about what was actually said, done or intended.”

6. Ask Yourself: Is the Emotion Justified?

This last step is the antithesis of emotional reaction. It’s a tool Bennett has gleaned from Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a method used to help people with personality disorders. Ask yourself if the emotion or the intensity of it is justified. “You’re pulling yourself out of the automatic thinking of the limbic system and logically trying to take control,” Bennett says. “If the answer is ‘no’ — and it most likely always will be — you do the opposite reaction you normally would have.” Instead of anger, react with compassion and empathy. “You’re getting yourself in the habit of positive reactions.”

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