Six Minutes to overcome your emotional reaction

Many of us know what it is like to be triggered.

By triggered I am referring to moments when an event or action or situation ignites our own subconscious perception of danger or risk or breaches our tightly held values.

The trigger event sets off the instinctive and fastest part of our brain before we even have a chance to consciously process the information. This means that the brain has sent signals to the central nervous system and synapses are firing our body uto respond. The trigger is an apt word as it sets off a response automatically. This includes a range of chemical and physiological events. The middle brain would shrink perspective, and powerful adrenaline & cortisol would be discharged.

Some people when triggered have an automatic freeze or flee response. This may have been passed on genetically through cultures and families or it could have been modeled by caregivers early in life. Some other people will be fired up to fight. The “fighters” may have more impact as other people often view this as an overreaction. And this fight response may set off triggers in other people – a cascading set of triggers. How quickly a simple human interaction can escalate into a war zone.

There are often misunderstandings about these triggers and responses. Actions are often interpreted as conscious choices when they are almost always not. This misunderstanding leads down a pathway of shadows and half-truths that can take us away from the best possible responses both by those triggered and those in witness. Perhaps a little more education is needed to help executives both respond to and regulate the effect of triggers.

To help with this, we have developed a four-step approach for executives wanting to improve their own handling of triggers. This process is the result of our work with hundreds of clients, combined with neuroscience research.

So how would this work? Let’s take a short journey with a client called John.

John would get triggered by a number of events and situations. One thing he started to notice, was that these triggers broadly feel into 2 different levels. Let’s call them level 1 and level 2.

The lower level usually came from an “in the moment” challenge, frown, or perceived sneer, coupled with the indifference that created separation. This mild trigger warned him of a potential foe. We worked with him to catch his body’s response at this moment. And over time he became increasingly aware that in these situations, he would experience a tightness in the throat, a hunching of the shoulder, and shorter, sharper breathing.

As he got more and more aware of these sensations in his body (which happens much faster than the conscious thinking response), he was able to respond to this in a physical way to work his body back to calm and stability. For him, this required six breaths – slower deliberate breaths. He even became skilled enough to enact this behind a smile. It was a simple but effective way of returning himself to feel more stable and settled. Like a mountain that is facing into a storm. These 6 breaths settled him enough that his slower thinking brain could then do some work in re-scripting his perception of what was going on. This re-script would allow for greater spontaneity at this moment. It may not be a frown at all, or at least not a frown meant for him! The stability of the 6 breaths allowed him to engage in self-talk that reinforces his ability to hold indifference or challenge and to respond constructively.

And then there was a more significant trigger for him. The level 2 trigger. This occurred on the realization that there existed a possibility of a big mistake. The catastrophizing would come over him in waves and he would tighten up like vacuum wrapped piece of meat. When caught in these higher-level triggers he was tense and restricted. The best thing to help him was to physically move. There was something quite powerful for him in shaking off the trigger through a physical walk. The walk shifted the body and allowed him to feel into parts of himself that moments ago had gone numb as he flooded with the chemicals of fear and anxiety. He could mindfully walk, step after step, feeling his way back into the weight of his body and buoyancy of his heel and then toe bouncing back off the footpath. He needed 6 minutes for these more significant triggers. Movement, mindful walking, and then after a few minutes finding his breath and taking some deeper inhalations.

The last-minute of his brief walk would be spent in re-thinking this issue and imagining he was giving advice to a good friend. Which in reality he was, as the “friend” was that part of him that had been triggered.

Six minutes well spent, and John was back functioning well enough to return to his tasks.

The reality is that the triggered response would not disappear, however, it’s impact was significantly reduced and its power was now in perspective.

A final comment on the acceptance of triggers and their larger intention. Fighting triggers and wishing them away almost always doesn’t work. There may be the odd exceptional person, however, for most of us, this approach is not optimal. For most of us, denial of the triggers may both prolong and intensify them. However, when we accept who we are and what is happening at that moment, we can actually jump forward into an effective response. This self-constructive feedback is critical in building more longer-term resilience

To sum up, here are the 4 steps:

  • Accelerated awareness of personal triggers – good and bad. Get to know how they feel.
  • Acceptance of both these triggers and a larger intention.
  • Physiological response to what is going on, to help return as quickly as possible to a place of emotional and physical stability.
  • Reframing of inner dialogues to allows for more creative and spontaneous responses to events.