What’s Going on in Your Brain and Body During an Argument

You brain is constantly sweeping for dangers in the environment — and when you’re in an argument, it’s working at full force.

If there’s a face, voice, sound, gesture, word, or phrase that appears threatening, the amygdala — the part of the brain that helps to process your emotions — will signal an alarm that causes your hypothalamus to activate the release of hormones by your pituitary and adrenal glands. “This is your brain’s way of saying it’s time to fight or flee,” Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, a clinician, researcher, teacher, and developer of A Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy, tells Yahoo Health.

When you’re in fight mode, your brain does a lot more than come up with your next snappy remark. In the midst of an argument, here’s what’s going on in your brain and body.

(Infographic: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)

Ever get tongue-tied during an intense argument, or forget the point you were about to make? It’s not your fault. A bad argument can bring on stress, which is bad for your short-term memory. Stress increases cortisol, a steroid hormone that helps your body stay alert in a bad situation. According to a study done by researchers at the University of Iowa, increased levels over an extended period of time have been linked to loss of synapses in the pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with short-term memories.

“An overstressed brain is compromised in its ability to manage complex social situations,” says Tatkin. “An overstressed brain is more likely to go to war than one that is not. A warring brain does not care if the threat is coming from a loved one. It shoots first and asks questions later.”

While it’s hard to see a positive outcome of an argument while you’re in the heat of the moment, arguing can actually lead to innovation. Unlike “bad” arguments — where there’s no resolution, only negative feelings — “when we have a good argument and are able to express our views and be listened to, we strengthen our ability to have really powerful exchanges of ideas,” Judith E. Glaser, CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc., chairman of Creating We Institute, and author of Conversational Intelligence, tells Yahoo Health. “During a productive argument, the outside layer of nerves in our brain strengthen, which allows us to work through challenges in the future that would initially cause us to give up.”

“Once your brain has decided there’s a danger, it sends immediate nerve signals down your spinal cord to your adrenal glands telling them to release the hormone adrenaline,” Glaser says. “Once released, adrenaline increases the amount of sugar in your blood, increases your heart rate, and raises your blood pressure.”

One argument won’t send you to the hospital, but it can impact your cardiovascular system if you have continuous periods of stress. A study published in the Journal of Personal Relationships found that chronic arousal of the autonomic nervous system (that kicks in when you’re angry) results in continued high levels of blood pressure, which damages the arteries. “Studies like this show that this kind of chronic stress is related to hypertension, heart disease, and mortality,” Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, tells Yahoo Health. “That’s why it’s not a good idea to let an argument go unresolved.”

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