As a culture, we've typically come to understand that a trigger is a moment when someone or something instantly brings about a negative physical, mental, and emotional reaction. When this happens, our stress response has become engaged and a myriad of unpleasant reactions quickly unfold.
The surge of adrenaline and cortisol hijacks the prefrontal cortex impacting our ability to move through the situation with ease. The limbic brain is now in the driver's seat resulting in highly emotional and regressive actions.
The brain's intention is to protect us from harm. Unfortunately, the everyday issues we encounter are not typically a crisis situation, such as when we receive a snarky email from a coworker, hear a judgmental tone from a friend, or anticipate a pending and tight deadline. We might realize this when the moment is behind us and emotions have settled. We've all had moments when we reflect back on a situation and say, “I can't even remember what caused that argument.” or “I'm not sure why I got so upset about that.” That's because our calm, logical mind wasn't in charge at the time.
Fortunately, it is possible to shift a pattern of reactions so that we are responding versus reacting to a situation. To assist with calming the sympathetic nervous system activation and engaging critical thinking skills, try the following.
- Breathe. When the nervous system becomes reactive, the breath moves into the chest. Take a step back and shift the breath to the belly. This mindful exercise lets the body know that there's really no crisis here. If there were, we wouldn't have the time or ability to stop and pay attention to the breath. The rule of thumb is 'when the body slows down, the mind slows down.' Be with the emotion rather than resist it. All moments pass when we allow them to do so.
- Engage the prefrontal cortex. Sitting with emotion is ideal, but there are times when we need to respond rather quickly, such as when there's a work-related need. Engaging in simple tasks like counting backwards, doing multiplication problems, or reciting the alphabet backwards can stimulate activity in the part of the brain that is responsible for problem solving. It's a simple trick that can stimulate just enough blood flow to that part of the brain, which is helpful when we need to pull it together in a pinch.
- Ask questions. Negative thoughts and reactions are remnants of the past. Engage your curiosity and set aside judgments as you ask yourself probing questions. Be your own private investigator. Some examples include: Why is this moment so challenging? Is this connected to anything I have experienced previously? What are other possible reactions? If someone else I trust and respect made this comment or used this tone, how would I react? If I weren't so emotional about this, how would I respond?
- Take ownership. Our reactions are unique to us and belong to us. Sure your boss can use an unhealthy tone or way of talking to you that might be noticed by anyone. However, if your reaction goes beyond noticing and you find yourself stuck in that place for an extended time, this is connected to your past. Your past is your story, and it can be helpful to view this as an opportunity to update it and rewrite how the situation plays out.
- Create a plan of action. Make a commitment to practice other ways of responding when a triggering situation arises. Think about the benefits that would come if you responded in the new way. Write it down. When we see intentions on paper or on a screen, it feels more concrete and more like a contract to act.
- Learn about your body's reactions. The list above is by no means exhaustive and what works for some might not work for others. If these methods don't work for you or you're simply curious and want to learn more about the neurobiology of triggers, I recommend the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. The more we understand about how and why the body reacts as it does, the more empowered we become.
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