How to Manage Emotional Triggers in This Highly Charged Time

Leadership Development | Leadership Coach

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Let’s face it, never has there been a time in America that’s this highly charged.

First, we’ve had the pandemic, followed by the outrage over the death of George Floyd. You’ve probably experienced anger, frustration, fear, uncertainty, restlessness, or any combination.

Managing your emotions now is more important than ever for your health and emotional well-being.

It’s fair to assume that you’ve been triggered by personal interactions, the news, or social media. The goal is not to react when you’re trigger, and instead to respond when you’re calm.

Why? Triggers lower your IQ, EQ, and leaves you incapable of intelligent thought. If you do react, you’ll probably regret it.

Here’s how to manage your triggers, and it’s more important now than ever before.   

Two examples of triggers- feel free to insert your own

You’re talking to a good friend who has very different political beliefs. She says something you believe to be utterly false. You feel your blood pressure rising and anger brewing.

At work, you’ve spent countless hours researching and analyzing and believe your findings to be highly significant. A colleague gently points out that some additional assumptions could’ve been included and might provide greater insight. You feel your jaw clenching, muscles tightening, and the stomach-churning.

These are two examples of triggers, and here’s why you shouldn’t react.

Our brains when we're triggered

Our brains have three levels-

  • Reptilian– controls the body’s vital functions such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature.
  • Limbic– records memories of both positive and negative experiences. It controls our emotions and value judgments, which are often subconscious.
  • Neocortex– is the highest level of the brain capable of complex thought, reasoning, planning, attention, and impulse control.

When you’re triggered, the following occurs: 

  • the reptilian brain is ruling your actions and reactions
  • you don’t have access to your higher thinking neocortex
  • you have both lower IQ and EQ 
  • you’re incapable of intelligent thought
  • you engage in behaviors you later regret
  • you react instead of respond

1. 'Fight or Flight' are the physical signals of a trigger

A ‘Fight or flight‘ is your body’s reaction to perceived danger and the release of hormones that prepare you to either fight or run. You could experience a change in your breathing rate, blood flow, muscles tightening, and pupils dilating.

These physical reactions represent a pattern that you can identify as a feeling. Once you recognize that you’re experiencing an intense feeling, stop and ask yourself what you’re feeling and why. It’s important not to be judgmental or self-critical. Explore the emotion with curiosity and no judgment. You must understand your feelings to grow.

The last thing you want to do when your reptilian brain to running the show and react. A reaction is quick, tense, and aggressive. Worse, a reaction provokes more reactions, perpetuating hateful discourse. In contrast, a response is calm, well thought out, and nonthreatening.

2. It takes time for your body to normalize

It takes 20-60 minutes for your body to normalize after fight or flight. There’s not an immediate ‘fix.’ 

Take time to any of the following:

  • Shift your emotional state- sit down, clear your mind of all thoughts, and focus on how you want to feel at this moment (for example, peaceful), each time you breathe in thinking of that word.
  • Take a brisk walk to exercise and release the adrenaline and stress hormones.
  • If a person triggered you, try assuming that they were well-intentioned. They may have had no idea they were stepping on a landmine.
  • Do whatever activity calms you- running, cooking, reading, yoga. When immersed in an activity, your mind is occupied, and your body resumes a normal functioning state.

Once you’ve de-escalated and are calm, you can now choose how you’ll respond. 

3. Understanding the underlying emotion

To gain control over your triggers, you must first identify the underlying emotional need you believed was threatened or wasn’t met. Here are some everyday emotional needs. 

  • acceptance
  • values/justice
  • respect
  • be liked
  • be right
  • be in control
  • be needed
  • attention
  • order
  • be understood
  • be treated fairly
  • consistency
  • order
  • balance
  • safety
  • feel included
  • autonomy
  • freedom
  • peacefulness
  • independence
  • comfort

In the meeting example above, you may have an underlying need for respect. Once you’ve identified the need, you can now explore the why. 

4. Correlating the emotion need and the trigger

You’ve identified respect as the emotional need that you felt was threatened. Now for the why. A counselor can be a skillful facilitator in this understanding. You can also use journaling for self-discovery. Write down each time you’re triggered, what was said or done, how you felt, the underlying identified feeling, and the why.

Continuing with the example, perhaps your spouse has grown in her career more quickly than you. Your rational mind knows this isn’t a contest, and her growth doesn’t diminish your own. Still, you can’t help but feel a bit resentful. Your work with a counselor has revealed that the root cause of your need for respect is insecurity. Working on insecurity has all but eliminated your respect trigger. 

You can gain control over your triggers by recognizing the physical signals, giving yourself time and space, identifying the underlying feeling, and understanding the why.

It takes time and effort but is well worth it. It gives you freedom and choice, as your emotions are no longer in control of you; instead, you’re in control of your emotions.

As you gain mastery over your triggers and grow your EQ, you’ll find more significant career opportunities, happiness, and satisfaction at work and in life.

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