Ruth Friedman is an ICF Accredited Coach and a Certified Transformational Coach. She coaches high-level and high potential executives to develop their leadership presence and to build resilience. Her professional background is in Corporate IT, Project Management and Training as well as in Coaching.
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Are you someone who ever gets emotionally triggered or reactive when things don’t go your way and you then do or say something you later regret?
It can happens to all of us, especially when we are stressed.
So what can you actually do about it?
This might sound obvious, but the first thing you need to do is to notice when it happens. You probably won’t catch the moment right away. It might only be afterwards, and at the beginning it may only be a long time afterwards. The more you pay attention, the closer to the moment you will catch what happened, but it may take some practice to get there.
Now that you are paying attention, instead of beating up on yourself, let’s try something different. You can try being kind to yourself, in the face of having been caught out, once again. Not to excuse whatever it was you did or said that you are now regretting, but to recognize that this kind of thing happens to anyone when they get triggered. You can give yourself a break. You are not a bad person but you did something in the heat of the moment, that you didn’t intend. That’s all.
Let’s look at what happens in the midst of a triggering.
We all have needs, it’s healthy, and knowing your needs helps you to survive. Sometimes other people help us meet our needs, and sometimes we need to meet them in other ways, instead of relying on others. The problem is, we tend to have expectations that certain others should meet our needs – like the need for care and acceptance, for example. However, sometimes that favorite person is just not available in the way that we want in that moment. That’s one of the moments that a lot of people get reactive, and that’s perfectly normal.
Inside the brain, there is a lot going on in such moments… The emotional part of the brain takes over, which means it activates the Freeze-Fight-Flight response system. The problem is, that the emotional brain does not do a reality checking. This part of the brain jumps into action – or reaction. It doesn’t check to see if this thing it’s reacting to is actually happening now, in the present moment, or if it is reacting to something that happened a long time ago. For the emotional brain – there is no difference. The fact that the emotional part of the brain can step in so fast is also a life-saver – for example it fuels your impulse to run into the road and to pull your child back from an approaching car. It’s the same mechanism.
The problem is that this part of the brain doesn’t know the difference between a challenging situation that happened a long time ago and something that is happening right now.
Often when we get triggered into an emotional reaction it’s because the emotional brain is responding to a situation that happened a long time ago and it’s behaving as if it were happening now. Here is an example: You are having a talk with someone and they appear not to hear you, they are just saying other things and not acknowledging you. Perhaps in the past, when you were a young child, this kind of thing happened a lot and now when it happens you get upset about it. But you are not only upset for what is happening no but also for all the other times it happened before. Then if you don’t catch it in time, you end up being inappropriately angry with the person in front of you – but they are not responsible for all the other times before. That’s why its so important to catch these moments – as more awareness always brings more choice.
So what to do about it?
There’s a lot of information out there that tells us all you need to do is to Stop, notice what’s going on, calm yourself down, take some deep breaths and carry on. As the saying goes ‘Keep Calm and Carry on’. It works ……up to a point.
However as Besel van de Kolk points out in his books ‘ The Body Keeps the Score’ it isn’t that simple.https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18693771-the-body-keeps-the-score
‘When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it’.
In fact when the emotions and reason are in conflict – we can have a very visceral experience, and it’s worth paying attention to it, even though the natural inclination can be to run away or ignore it all. It can feel like World War 3 breaking out in the gut, the heart, lungs and so on. It creates havoc to our system – all the long term projects of the body go on hold, that’s things like building the immune system, growth, healing etc . And lets face it no-one enjoys being triggered.
This is when it’s important to turn towards the body and take note of the information held in the body. One of the methods that helps is Whole Body Focusing. This is a body centered enquiry process that helps you to learn from the body – when you can connect with the raw feelings in the trigger they can lead you back to the root cause of the problem. Now that you are in contact with the root cause of the trigger, you can deal with it – by welcoming and accepting whatever you find there – and then you won’t get as reactive with people in the present.
In the meantime here are some tips to get you started:
- Start paying attention to your triggers and get curious about them, as an investigative journalist trying to make sense of a situation.
- Keep a trigger journal and write about the situation, to reflect on the trigger and what is causing it. It will get you pretty far just by noticing what is triggering you and how you are reacting.
- When you catch it in the moment, try and bring yourself really present – notice your feet on the ground, the sounds around you, your breathing etc, and be aware of whatever bodily sensations you are experiencing. Feel your own sense of being a person who is bigger than this thing that is triggering you – it is a part of you that is triggered – you are so much bigger than that !
And be kind to yourself for having to deal with this challenging situation.
Please post your thoughts in the comments below – what gets you triggered and how do you handle it?