Emotional Intelligence

Heather: How to handle triggers

Wouldn't we all love to never again feel anxious or stressed the next time an angry customer called us or we received a terse email from our boss? Of course we would.

But it's unlikely. We call these triggers and they show up regularly in our lives. However, there's good news: We can learn new skills and practices to navigate these triggers with more ease, confidence and wise action. It's very empowering!

I've worked with brilliant, highly capable people whose careers were derailed because they weren't able to regulate their emotional reactivity and sometimes this resulted in behaviours that were really counterproductive to building trust and high performing, healthy team cultures. So it's worth understanding triggers and what we can do to work with them skillfully.

First, a bit of helpful brain science is helpful to understand this. What's going on in our brain when we are triggered and why do we sometimes react impulsively?

When the brain feels under threat, we're having what some call an "amygdala hijack". The amygdala is like the brain's alarm center – its main concern is self preservation and so it activates a full body response to any real or imagined threat. An amygdala hijack puts you in a fight or flight or freeze mode. The higher reasoning centre – our prefrontal cortex – goes offline and our muscle fibres are twitching ready for any reaction to protect ourselves. Sometimes you can even see this change in another person – and as you build your self awareness, you begin to see clearly this in yourself.

Now this is really helpful for physical threats – like jumping out of the way of a bus – but it's not so helpful in most work or personal situations.

But the good news is we can build the skills of self-management and start to catch ourselves in the act, gain more perspective and choose a wise response. In an earlier video called Become an emotional intelligence Jedi I shared a short, helpful practice which I really encourage you to watch. It had three parts to it, and now that you know what's happening with the brain under stress, I'll expand on it:

  1. When you catch yourself getting triggered, that's the time to stop, pause, take a meaningful pause. Our work here is to calm the body's alarm system when it feels under threat – three slow deep breaths, or taking long exhales can help. Do you remember being told to 'count to 10 when you were angry as a child? I do. Turns out there's some real science behind that tip.
  2. Notice the emotions. In particular, bring awareness to how emotions are showing up for your physiologically. Do you feel the heat in your face when you are angry, or a rapid heartbeat when nervous? It's important here not to react when the physiological sensations are strong. Just watch, feel and allow the body sensations start to subside. What we are doing here is creating enough space between the triggering event to allow time for the executive centre of the brain – the prefrontal cortex - time to come online and help choose a wise response.
  3. Finally, choose a wise response. Remember you have CHOICE in how you respond now that your PFC has come online. Choose a response that is expressed with wisdom, compassion and understanding for yourself and the other person. Importantly here, pay attention to 'self talk', and our stories and assumption about the situation. Dr Brene Brown calls this the 'stories we make up'. It's good to question these stories so we can remain more objective in how we choose to respond.

In summary, you can learn new, better ways to navigate triggers with ease and skill. And in my own experience, over time these triggers lost their power and I was able to strengthen my relationships, reduce stress, negotiate difficult conversations, build self confidence and be the kind of leaders others trust and will follow.


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