Managing Your Response When Triggered
Written by Melissa Kessler, MA, PCC
High-stress situations, irritating people, and inflammatory remarks can trigger fear, frustration, or anger in us because they are perceived as threats. The fight or flight response kicks in as a survival mechanism. The logical part of our brain shuts down, emotions take over, and cortisol and adrenaline course throughout our bodies, giving us the energy needed to defend ourselves. However, fighting back in the workplace or with family members, may not be the most productive course of action. As a leadership coach, I help leaders increase their emotional intelligence by becoming more aware of what triggers them, the emotions these triggers cause, and how to manage these emotions in their interactions with others.
Here are some steps you can take when you get triggered:
- Notice when you are triggered. What is your physiological response to triggers? Do you get a knot in your stomach? Does your head feel like it’s going to explode? Does your face get hot and beet red? This is your signal that you have been triggered. Once you have awareness, you can control your response.
- Take some deep breaths. You can utilize square breathing to oxygenate your brain and off-set the stress response. Do this by breathing in for 4 counts, holding it for 4 counts, breathing out for 4 counts, holding it for 4 counts and repeating this for a few cycles until you notice your heart rate and blood pressure lower. This will help you think more logically instead of allowing the emotional part of your brain to be in control.
- Ask yourself some questions to engage the logical part of your brain. “What am I feeling? What is making me so upset? What am I getting out of being so worked up over this? How much energy do I want to give to this? What would be a better use of my energy? Is this something I can control or do anything about? What are my options? What do I want to do about this?”
Here are some steps to take if you get triggered by a person who has set you off or verbally attacked you:
- Take a break and disengage if you can. You can say, “I need a break. I can’t talk about this right now because I’m just defending myself.” Take a walk if you can, and follow steps 2 & 3 above. Physical activity and deep breathing are the best ways to complete the stress cycle. (See my newsletter on this topic here.) Come back to the person to discuss it later when you are in a better emotional state using steps 5-9 below. (If you can’t disengage, follow step 2, and then proceed to steps 5-9 below.)
- Ask the other person a question. This will buy you some time before responding and prevent you from saying something you may later regret. Ask, “What do you mean by that? Help me understand what you mean.”
- Actively listen to their explanation. Seek first to understand before responding. Ask more clarifying questions if you need more information to better understand. Stay focused and be open to what they are saying. Listen to understand rather than to reply.
- Show that you understand. Once you feel like you understand where they are coming from, reflect back what you think you heard and how you think they feel. Say, “You feel… [frustrated] about…[being ignored].”
- Legitimize. This is not saying that they are right or that you agree with them. It is just showing that you can understand how they would feel that way. Say, “I would probably feel that way too if that’s how it looked to me.”
- Agree on a path forward. Ask, “What do you need in order to move forward? Here’s what I need from you… Can we both agree to this?” (If you can’t agree to the requests made, what are you both willing to do and agree to going forward?)
Even though it is human nature and part of our biology to fight back and defend ourselves when we are triggered, it is not our best option when relationships are at stake. We always have the ability to pause, breathe, reflect, and choose our response instead of just reacting on impulse. It takes a great amount of self-awareness and self-management (emotional intelligence), but we can learn to do this with practice. It is in our best interest to manage our response to triggers. Our health, emotional well-being, careers, and relationships depend on it.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl
“Every human has four endowments – self awareness, conscience, independent will, and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom…The power to choose, to respond, and to change.” – Dr. Stephen Covey