You are bopping along, having a fantastic day when suddenly someone does something that infuriates you. You’ve just been triggered. If you react in this heightened emotional moment, you’ll probably regret it; this state lowers your IQ, EQ, and leaves you incapable of intelligent thought.
Here’s how to keep triggers from highjacking your emotions. You won’t do something you’ll later regret, leaving your reputations and self-respect fully intact.
An example trigger- feel free to insert your own
You’re in a meeting and presenting to your team. 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. You’re now triggered.
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.
1. Recognizing the physical signals of a trigger
Physical expressions of emotions include a change in your breathing rate, blood flow, flushing or growing pale, clenching of your jaw, tightening of muscles, and uneasiness in the stomach’s pit.
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. Don’t be self-critical; explore the emotion without judgment. You must understand your feelings to grow.
2. Give yourself time so that you can respond and not react.
The last thing you want to do when you’re incapable of rational thought is to allow your reptilian brain to run the show and react. A reaction is typically quick, tense, and aggressive. Worse, a reaction provokes more reactions, perpetuating hateful discourse. A response is calm, well thought out, and nonthreatening.
When time allows, do the following:
- Find some quiet space for reflection-take a walk.
- Assume that the person who triggered you was well-intentioned – they probably had no idea they were stepping on a landmine.
- 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
Once you’ve de-escalated, you can now choose how you’ll respond thoughtfully and rationally; this keeps your credibility fully intact.
3. Understanding the emotion which set off the trigger
To understand why you were triggered and prevent future occurrences, you must identify the underlying feeling. Here are some common emotional needs. When you believe these needs are threatened or aren’t being met, you can be triggered.
- be valued
- be liked
- be right
- be in control
- be needed
- be understood
- be treated fairly
- feel included
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. Understanding why you react when this need is threatened
Understanding why this is a trigger allows you to understand yourself better, and gain control of your emotions.
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 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; This feels great!
You can gain control over your triggers by recognizing the physical signals, giving yourself time and space, identifying the underlying feeling, and understanding why. You’ll then have the choice to respond exactly as you’d like, as opposed to reacting in a way you’ll regret.
As you learn to control your triggers and grow your EQ, you’ll find more significant career opportunities, happiness, and satisfaction at work and in life.