Feel an Argument Coming On? Here are 4 Ways to Help Manage Physiological Arousal

Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Randy Heinitz

Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Randy Heinitz

This is a guest post by Marc Fernandez, co-founder of
The HumanBluPrint. Marc Fernandez is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working in public service as well as in private practice. He is an avid long-distance runner and IronMan triathlete-in-training. Marc has competed in several Sprint and Olympic distance triathlons as well as a Half Ironman.


Can you remember the last time you were in a heated argument? How did you feel? Did your body temperature rise? Did your hands start sweating? Did you possibly say things you regretted saying?

Our bodies have an array of defense mechanisms to keep us safe and most importantly alive. Having a strong understanding of what those signs and warnings are can allow us to reverse the effects in an efficient and responsible manner, allowing for more effective problem solving, communication and ultimately stronger relationships with others.

Dr. John Gottman, who has spent the last 40 plus years researching couple dynamics coined the term diffuse physiological arousal (DPA). DPA is the physiological overload a person experiences when you’re in fight-or-flight mode. It is a sympathetic nervous system (SNS) response.

As a marriage and family therapist, I see couples who reach DPA often. The energy that two couples in a heated argument emit is immense and working with them while they’re in this state of mind is an extremely complex and fragile process which involves a great deal of psychoeducation for the couple in regards to the physiological warnings that occur when one is rapidly on their way to experience DPA.

Reaching a level of DPA, as per Dr. Gottman, means that a person has surpassed a heart rate of > 90-100 beats per minute (depending on individual). When a person reaches a state of DPA, the following may occur:

  • body temperature rises
  • perspiration is evident
  • myocardial contractility
  • increased vasoconstriction
  • increased sympathetic and decreased parasympathetic activation
  • increased renin-angiotensin activity
  • reduced oxygen concentration in the blood
  • decreased blood supply to non-essential functions like the gut and kidney
  • catecholamine and cortisol secretion
  • increased amygdala activation
  • decreased frontal lobe activation
  • immunosuppression

Possible Side Effects or Consequences of DPA

Our body’s defense mechanisms serve an incredible purpose. Once our blood oxygen level is too low, or vasoconstriction is too high (along with all the other reactions that occur during DPA), our bodies will shut down to save itself from possible irreparable destruction. While it’s a convenient mechanism to have, it isn’t one that you want to activate frequently. Frequent time spent in DPA has been shown to lead to several medical and mental health disorders.

So take a second to think about how you actively prevent yourself from reaching DPA.

4 Ways to Help Manage Physiological Arousal

1. Measure Key Biomarkers

Gain an understanding of where your baseline and hs-CRP and cortisol levels stand. (various WellnessFX panels test these biomarkers)

Hs-CRP, or high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, is currently the human body’s best indicator of inflammation. When you’re injured, your body goes through a process of rushing blood to the injured area, allowing immune cells to begin the healing process. Interestingly enough, inflammation is shown to be a crucial marker of depression, whether mild or severe. This study digs into how inflammation can affect people when they’re feeling depressed about any of life’s stressors. Maintaining healthy hs-CRP levels means your body isn’t constantly injured, or in terms of mental health, depressed. Let’s be real when we use words like depression, you don’t need to be diagnosed with depression to experience depressive symptoms. Knowing that your baseline hs-CRP level is optimal predicts that your body is capable of managing those symptoms effectively which in turn keeps one from experiencing depressive symptoms for extended period of time which is one of the indicators that would lead to a depressive diagnosis, as per the ICD-10.

Cortisol levels can give you insight as to how frequently you engage in fight-or-flight mode. When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands secrete cortisol to help bring your body back to baseline. If you’re constantly stressed (aka constantly secreting cortisol), your baseline cortisol levels are going to be high which can have several implications to your body. If your baseline is over 19.5 µg/dL, you may want to seriously consider the next three tips.

2. Work with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)

If you’re experiencing any of the aforementioned physiological reactions due to your style of conflict (confrontational, avoidant, etc.) or due to perpetual arguments with a loved one, a marriage and family therapist can certainly help you and your significant other (or you and your family) work through these issues and teach each of you appropriate coping skills to prevent DPA. LMFTs are specially trained to facilitate individuals, couples and families’ presenting concerns from a systemic approach. They can help their client(s) systematically recognize how recurring issues manifest themselves in different aspects of their lives. LMFTs, like most holistic therapists, help their client(s) work on the root cause of the issue while providing tools for symptom management. Psychotherapists trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can also provide effective and evidence-based treatment plans when working with an individual to help the client gain the skills and tools needed to manage stress.

3. Practice Some Form of Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation can be a beneficial way to reduce stresses like anxiety and depression as noted in a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Mindfulness meditation can help one gain a deeper and more personal understanding of how to manage stress by allowing the individual time to explore thought patterns which may provoke stress in a relaxed and non-threatening environment. Being mindful to stress provoking thoughts, with practice, could allow acceptance to replace anxiety, leading to new perspective and meaning to these thoughts. A great way to start if you’re a complete beginner is with the HeadSpace app.

4. Track Your Heart Rate Variability

Tracking your heart rate variability (HRV) can give you a strong sense of how resilient you are to daily stressors. To briefly summarize, HRV is the variation in the time interval between heart rates. Heart rate fluctuations are regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which works to maintain the body in equilibrium by way of managing blood pressure, heart rate, etc. The ANS consists of the sympathetic branch (fight or flight) which is responsible for speeding your heart rate up and the parasympathetic branch (rest and repair) which is responsible for slowing down your heart rate. Interplay between these two branches gives you an HRV reading. Tracking this measurement can provide you with great insight as to how your own autonomic nervous system functions in response to stress. An easy way to track your HRV is by using the SweetBeat HRV app and a bluetooth chest strap. For more on establishing an HRV tracking routine and what your data means, WellnessFX practitioner Ben Greenfield provides a fantastic introduction (and more advanced resources) to HRV here.

Bottom Line

What can our body really tell us about managing stress? While getting concrete and definitive answers may still be a long shot, taking a preventive stance with your overall health can at the very least give you a stronger sense of how to go about self-improvement. Regular blood testing, a consult on your biomarkers, a routine mindfulness meditation practice, tracking your HRV and by spending some time working with a therapist, you could truly take control of stress and prevent it from controlling you.

How WellnessFX Can Help

Many WellnessFX panels offered can test a variety of the key biomarkers mentioned in this post. You can check the chart here to see what package fits your needs best.

FYI Cortisol levels are at their highest in the morning, usually peaking around 8:00 am. While this blood test only requires a morning fast, eating your last morsel before 8:00 pm the previous night means you’ll be ready for comprehensive biomarker testing in the morning. If your cortisol number is out of range when you get your results (>23 mcg/dL), you’ve got some stress reduction to do.

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About theHumanBluPrint

TheHumanBluPrint’s mission is to provide cutting edge health and wellness information meant to help health-conscious people tap into their maximum potential. Expertise in bioscience research and relationship dynamics, backed by years of experience, drive the forward-thinking ideals of TheHumanBluPrint. Continuous self-discovery of how the human body functions and responds on a biological, psychological, social and spiritual level helps one self-tailor the implementation of information available in the world of health and wellness.

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The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.