Stop Shooting Yourself in the Foot! Learn to Recognize and Manage Triggered Reactions
We all have them…those hot-button issues, things that get under our skin. When one of them happens it triggers an over-reaction that is emotion-filled, quick and is probably not in your best interest. Some triggering events provoke a significant reaction. Others are like mini-earthquakes in your daily life where you feel just a twinge of annoyance. Big or small, your decision-making is impaired when you are in a triggered state. With practice and with knowledge about how your brain works, you can learn to recognize and manage triggers in order to make wise choices.
Know your triggers. What are those people, situations or issues that cause you to over-react? Some of them are familiar. For me, anytime my computer decides to go on vacation I over-react…every time. I get frustrated and lose far more time than is necessary because I have to wait for my nervous system to calm down to think clearly again. But it’s the big decisions that result in bigger problems. Someone on your staff steps on your last nerve – the project isn’t done on time, the quality of work isn’t up to your standards, they didn’t follow your direction, or they are not committed to the work. It hits you at your core. In an instant, you react with an emotion-driven response and soon, you regret not thinking beforehand. Some triggers are unexpected but many are predictable. The more aware you are about the situations or people that create that triggered reaction, the more easily you can manage it.
Your Brain Speaks: Your brain is designed to help you stay alive by alerting you to danger and threats. A triggering event happens when something jeopardizes your physical or emotional safety. Unlike cave dwellers, you don’t have to fight or flee but your brain is stuck with that…well, mindset. Something runs counter to your beliefs or desires and the amygdala lights up. It rings the alarm bells that signal your body to change the mixture of neurotransmitters. The emotional centers in the limbic brain come alive and draw energy away from the executive function of the prefrontal cortex. You have a decreased ability to consider options and weigh the best choice. Consequently, you react in habitual ways that are quick and easy for the brain.
What causes the triggering event? In my experience and observation, there are two significant culprits. Your values and stuck stories.
Values. Your values are those principles that are meaningful for you and motivate your behavior at a deep level. For example, two of my values are success and self-sufficiency. When I observe carefully, I see these values at work every day (working too hard to build my business; an inability to ask for help when I need it). What are your values? Look closely and you’ll see underlying patterns of behavior (and I write about how to uncover your values in Chapter 2 of Think Less, Live More.) When something happens that your brain believes jeopardizes any of your values, the amygdala gets excited and tries to hijack the thinking brain. When you know your values, you have a head start at understanding when they trip up your brain in an unhelpful way.
Stuck stories. A triggering event may come from an external situation or from your internal voice – you know the one, the voice that carries on the running commentary in your head. Stuck stories are the recurrent themes that play behind the scenes and are not constructive. As you dig into triggering events you may notice that there are only a handful of stuck stories. Everything comes back to them. In my case, I get triggered if I feel that an authority figure doesn’t approve of my work. My other stuck story is my sensitivity to being left out. Those two are responsible for many internally triggered situations. To an outside observer, nothing major happened, but the stories in your head tell you otherwise and you over-react.
Do-Over. It’s not always easy to unravel the source of a triggering event. With practice, I came up with a technique that I call a do-over. With a do-over, you imagine the triggering situation the way you wish it would have been. What would you have said and what would others have said? This is not for venting but for constructive heart-felt communication. How would the conversation go if both parties were calm and respectful? Once you replay the situation with the new dialogue, observe the difference between the actual event and the do-over. You will likely notice some key differences that highlight your value system or stuck story. Or, you may realize that the dialog you wished for is simply out of reach for the other person. In my case, do-overs of a family dynamic helped me realize that my family member didn’t have the personal background or resources to give me the support I craved. Knowing that, helped release my expectations and prevented future triggering events. Try it. Replay the situation the way you wished it had been and see what you learn from the differences.
Stuck stories may not completely go away but the more you practice recognizing them, the more you find that they become less scary and more like, “Oh…there you are again.” It’s like the annoying uncle who is predictable and manageable when you have a constructive mindset.
The more you practice recognizing triggering events and unraveling them to the source, the more likely you are to manage reactive situations in advance and to resource yourself to behave appropriately until your brain and nervous system regain their footing. It’s work but well worth the effort by saving you the time and embarrassment of having to clean up after yourself. And, you’ll have more peace of mind.