The Problem With Arousal

We tend to see arousal in a relationship as a positive attribute.

We correlate it with the abdominal butterflies of the early dates and the heady rush of the first kiss. We enjoy the tunnel vision of young love and the electric nerve endings primed with anticipation. Untold books are written about difficulties with a lack of arousal and how a deficit in excitement can lead to a marital dead bedroom when a partner fails to elicit a response in the other.

That’s a limited view of a complex biological mechanism.

Arousal is a physiological state where the autonomous nervous and endocrine systems are turned on and ready to go. The increased heart rate, blood pressure and alertness makes us ready to fight, flee or, in the case of a potential mate, maybe another “f” word. It’s an evolutionary response that downshifts our brains into basic survival mode, the instinct to protect self and offspring prevailing over all other thoughts.  The vision field literally narrows to limit distractions and focus attention on the task at hand. The body is primed to attack or run as blood flows into the limbs. In a true survival situation, a heightened state of arousal is key.

Most situations are not truly about survival. 

Several years ago, my now-husband and I were walking Tiger on a trail along the river. A car suddenly veered from the road onto the path, dramatically splintering a fence, before coming to a stop mere feet in front of us. I immediately felt my heart accelerate and my body begin to shake. I remember feeling a need to act, to move, yet feeling unsure what to do. I looked over at Brock and was surprised to see him calm and unmoving, visually assessing the situation and making an action plan. Unflustered, he handed me the leash and instructed me to move Tiger out of the way into an adjacent field.

Brock’s years of medic training had taught him how to mitigate his body’s arousal system. Whereas my brain was sent into the panic of high alert, he was able to maintain a lower level of arousal that still allowed him to think rationally, process stimuli and act logically.

Too much arousal is as detrimental to a relationship as too little.

Not every situation is as dramatic as a car crashing through a fence. In fact, sometimes it can be as subtle as a particular phrase or echo of a memory that awakens our survival-brain. Primed for fears of abandonment, whenever Brock used to express displeasure or disappointment with me, my body would respond with an all-out flood of neurotransmitters. Through that heightened lens, every word, every movement was a threat to my survival.

In that state, I could not respond rationally. I could not see the bigger picture. I could not problem solve or make connections. And I could not risk showing any vulnerabilities, as my brain was convinced that everything was a threat. Communication is impossible when one or both partners are flooded with emotion. And if one or both people continually respond in a heightened state? Every discussion becomes a battlefield.

Affection is a dangerous antidote to hyper-arousal.

Cesar Milan often works with dogs that are in the “red zone,” the canine equivalent of fight or flight. He cautions the owners from providing affection when their dog is in that heightened state because it is rewarding the animal for being in the red zone. Instead, he waits until the dogs are relaxed and only then does he try to train or reward them.

Humans are no different. As an introvert (shown to be more sensitive to stimuli) geared towards anxious, I am naturally prone to an excess of arousal. Throughout my first marriage, my then-husband used to respond to my alertness by soothing me, using affection and attention to lower my excitement levels. It worked in the moments, but it also did nothing to discourage those moments from reoccurring.

Your arousal levels are not fixed; you can train your body to respond differently.

Nowhere is the brain’s ability to regulate arousal more apparent than in sniper training. These men and women learn how to lower their heart and respiratory rates to extremely low levels, make complex calculations and perform detailed fine motor movements all while in potentially dangerous situations.

We can outsmart our reptilian brains through mindfulness and practice. We can use the power of our rational minds when we are not in the red zone to change how we respond when faced with a perceived threat. It takes persistence, practice and patience. But you can retrain your brain.

Learning to control your arousal state is critical to relationship success.

The Gottman Institute has studied arousal states in couples and has determined that a lower level of arousal during conflict is positively correlated with marital longevity and happiness.  It makes sense. Learning to take responsibility for your own actions and overreactions is a key in mature and balanced partnerships. When you hold your own fuse, you are able to limit the potential of a conversational conflagration.

In the bedroom, by all means turn it up. But in the rest of your marriage, you may be better served by turning it down.



Thank you for sharing!

5 thoughts on “The Problem With Arousal

  1. Reminds me of what our physics teacher showed us when we said we were worried the exam would be way too hard:–Dodson_law

    I think we can agree that marriage doesn’t fall in the simple task category.

    I have damage to part of my brain which controls certain hormones including cortisol, the stress hormone. While I definitely felt stressed, sad, angry and hurt during the aftermath of d day people remarked how calmly I acted and much later it was thought by a psychologist that the fact I have physiologically low cortisol may have helped me to be calm in deciding and acting. I can definitely see how that could be true.

  2. Wow. Despite my background in psychology, I never thought about the “tunnel vision” I experienced in one of my relationships as a result of the intense amount of arousal we invoked in one another. It made for amazing sex, but it also made for a messy, painful, confusing relationship that was unbalanced and ultimately unhealthy. You nailed it on this one. Nice work.

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