What is a trigger?
Triggers are a little different than getting justifiably angry or emotional at something. The main difference is that triggers show up when something seemingly normal has a very strong impact on you, to the point where you might feel yourself lashing out or wanting to run and hide. (In other words, the reaction is disproportionate to the stimulus, as touted author and internationally known psychologist Daniel Goleman would say). Some people respond by fighting, and others respond by fleeing. Adrenaline and cortisol flood the body. All rational thought goes out the window. Simply put, your pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for higher executive thinking, is no longer in control. Your mammalian brain (amygdala), however, is. You ROAR! driven by your basic animal instinct. So the question is, how do we manage our triggers? We all get triggered by something at one time or another. Here’s a secret about skilled leaders: they know how to process, manage and recover quickly from a trigger. Here are some tips on how to get started.
1. Become present to the feelings in your body & BREATHE!!!
Realizing you are triggered is the first step. Often, you’ll know because it will feel like your blood will start to boil. You may feel tightness in your jaw, or in your gut. I remember getting triggered once by an employee. I don’t remember what the trigger was, but I do remember the feeling – one of anger and frustration. My speech got terse and my neck tight. What I wasn’t aware of at the time was that I was triggered. So what can you do if this happens?
First, really become present with the feeling, and notice it. Notice where you might feel tense in your body (like your jaw or your neck might freeze up) and breathe into it. If you happen to find yourself getting triggered in a space like a meeting, take a break, give yourself some time to regain your composure, and then come back. Space is your friend. One technique that is really helpful for leaders is to say, “I don’t like how I’m showing up right now. I want to be at my best for this conversation. Let’s continue this discussion at another time.” Or, "That's an interesting idea. Let me check in with my other colleagues and I'll get back to you on this." Giving yourself space to be present to the feeling and breathing into it will help you manage it. Becoming self-aware of your triggers will slowly help you to manage them. Unless you have awareness of your triggers, you can’t address them.
2. Do complex math
Well, not really. But counting is a very simple technique to use when you are being triggered. The advice says to count to 10. When you are triggered, your pre-frontal cortex gets hijacked by your mammalian brain, and you are essentially in fight or flight mode, our most basic, animalistic survival instinct. Counting activates the executive function of the brain. I started counting up in 3’s, because it requires more focused thinking and thus requires more of the executive function to do it. (And it did wonders the other day as I waited for 25 minutes while the Office Depot worker continually kept botching up a credit transaction while I was trying to check out. I drove home counting in 3’s and soon I was merry!) By trying to call in that function, you are essentially attempting to bypass your mammalian brain and bring yourself back into using your executive function. You can also write down the numbers, spelling out each one. Note that these are just techniques to use in the moment. You’ll likely need to give space to process the emotion from the trigger after the fact.
If you find yourself triggered and about to write an e-mail, STOP. You will be writing a mammalian-brained e-mail. Take some time to stop, breathe and process before writing that email. Or, write it and keep it in your drafts folder. Go back to it in a day or so when you’ve regained your executive function and then send.
3. Stay curious
Another way to deal with triggers is to get really curious about the other person that triggered you. If the person is making you flip your lid, you want to get to the point where you can start to take steps to separate their action from their intention. Their action may be making you flip out, but perhaps that was not their intention. If you lash out at them and say they are being this way or doing this because of x, you may find yourself in a vortex of projection. And trust me, you’ll be revealing more about yourself in your words than about anyone else.
Here’s some suggested language to use: “I’m curious: what did you mean when you said <fill in the blank>?” or “I’m curious: when you did this, what was your intention?” In my coaching work with clients, what I find is that most of the time, people are not out to trigger others on purpose. However, the person doing the triggering often can benefit from learning to be more self-aware of their actions and how they may impact the triggered person. The person triggered can work on starting to separate the action from the intention.
4. Get to the bottom of it!
This is a big one. What you have to understand is that triggers are often associated with experiences from our childhood that caused us to feel threatened or fearful. The mammalian brain kicks in and does everything it can to keep us safe, because that feeling or emotion is just too painful for us to handle. Most of the time, those triggered feelings relate back to feelings of being unloved, worthlessness, and abandonment (I know – grim). BUT!!! And I say this again: everyone has triggers – nobody is without them. Understanding the origins of your triggers can really help shed new light on your relationships, and empower you to take control and responsibility for your own reactions and behaviors when you feel triggered. It’s hard to trace triggers back to their origins, but there are some effective coaching techniques that can help you uncover them. Often, when I help a client trace back the origins of a trigger, they cite that the next time they are triggered, the trigger does not have nearly as much of an impact on them as when they were not aware of their trigger.
These are some tips to try. And if you try and don’t always get it right – that’s OK. We are all human, and making changes in our behavior takes some getting used to. And sometimes after mastering one trigger, we’re faced with a new one and have to start all over. Heck, I still discover new triggers in myself from time to time! The point is to try, and to get better at understanding and managing yourself. You can re-pattern the reaction you have to the stimulus.
When do you get triggered? How are you able to effectively manage your triggers? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below!