There is something all of us would like to be free of, not just on the fourth of July, but most any regular day – a phenomena that occurs frequently to most people at home and at work (and often driving on the freeway), that has to do with our thoughts and feelings when we are ‘triggered’. Many of us have no idea how to deal with the worst of triggers or how to promote and institute positive triggers inside of us and other people around us.
What are emotional triggers anyway?
Today the word triggers is being used all over the place and it’s good to find out more about what they are and how important they are us. Triggers is a term used in various ways to describe events that are perceived in such as way as to set off a change in mindset and attitude, usually suddenly. Today the term is used in several ways to connote environmental events or factors associated with both positive and negative states that are set off inside an individual and nudge the person into a spontaneous reaction. Basically, triggers cause strong sudden reactions.
Various uses of the term. Condoleezza Rice used the term in a speech delivered to a university graduation class when speaking about the use of specific words that can trigger a strong negative reaction among people – such as the ‘n’ word and other controversial terms that infer social discrimination and may solicit an outcry or outrage from listeners. Author, Nir Eyal uses the term in his book called Hooked where he shares how companies today can intentionally focus their product development to create a hook response – an immediate buy reaction and trigger consumers to purchase and/or continually reuse a product. An example is someone who cannot go for very long without looking at their phone or Facebook, forming a type of addictive need to automatically keep returning to check on it and do so quite unconsciously or even in a compulsory way- kind of like someone who has to double check 3 or 4 times if they really did lock the door or not. Another author and executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith actually named his new book Triggers to describe the very difficult but necessary task of learning to change poor habits, not just talk about them. He says structure is critical to being able to create positive triggers that promote one to engage in good life skills. And he has also found that most people who are even highly successful fail to create a strong enough structure to help themselves really change—they may prefer to have many discussions about it though. I agree with Goldsmith on that point drawing from my own experience. Let’s face it, change is really hard to do, but it is done all the time by really committed people. One of those important items to be able to change is our reactions to the specific triggers that get to us.
No matter what, it takes work to overcome and not be controlled by negative triggers and it takes self awareness to understand the power that your own actions have on other people who may be triggered by the words you say, or don’t say, the look on your face, tone of voice, or any number of situational peculiarities that induce a triggered response, both good and bad.
What makes trigger so confounding is that people infer different meaning to triggers, and different individuals will often infer a different meaning to the same event, or even perceive the same event differently depending on the what day it is or what time of day it is, and all sorts of other factors (such as how hungry or thirsty you are at the moment).
I’ve helped people identify and reframe their peculiar sets of triggers for many years and I usually address triggers right out the gates when working with any client. Though most people are able to describe scenarios that set them off, they usually have less understanding about why they are susceptible to particular irritants, and even less ideas about how to manage them better. One main issue with the business of being triggered is how your five main thinking skills are literally derailed in the middle of a trigger event. That is a discussion for another post. Suffice to say now that we just can’t think straight when we are triggered and it takes learning how to maintain mental clarity with self awareness to oneself at the moment of sudden impact.
What makes things even more confusing is there seems to be something about triggers that people actually like, even when it makes them frustrated, annoyed and put off.
Additional problems. Concomitant to negative triggers are factors of a deeper nature with components even more ambiguous that can convolute most any situation. These are conflicting behavioral reactions, personal hooks, blind spots, biases, shadows, hot buttons, and your core cognitive structure made up of highly individualized paradoxical dynamics. These factors are much closer to the core and at the center of the onion. You being the onion.
In this post, I wish to add clarity the outer layers of the onion about the term triggers and help readers understand more about what they are, what it means to get triggered, and some recommendations about how to deal with them. Most all of us want and need new ways to deal with negative triggers that hook us in particular ways.
In a nutshell, the usefulness of doing trigger work is to understand your reactions to your environment and understanding other people and their reactions to environmental factors too. These are valuable to examine because it gives you greater insights into managing your relationship with others as well as yourself
Triggers and personal hooks are catalysts. Triggers induce the sudden onset and change of personal “state” –your state of thinking, feeling, intending, acting and behaving. Hooks and triggers may be positive such as receiving a phone call you just won the lottery would set you into a positive tizzy right away. However, most often I’ve found positive triggers are accepted with a smile and then get back to work and focus on the next goal, what is still left to get done. Often people don’t savor their positive triggers. Most often we imagine our negative triggers as a cause that makes us get defensive and sets off our flight or fight mode.
Your own list of triggers is very unique to you. However, there are some things that almost all people don’t like. For instance, I’ve never met anyone who likes to have their words talked over and interrupted. This is so common though. We may barely notice when it happens to someone else. But we can be acutely aware of it and get really triggered when it happens to us.
Notice that if you remain self aware (which is not that easily done either) you will notice your STATE has instantly shifted…from open to guarded, from feeling spontaneous to being cautious, to thinking clearly to feeling confused. And this happens in an instant.
What can you do about it? Here are some pointers about how to deal with an emotional trigger you may be experiencing. The essential skill to address hooks and triggers is to get to know yourself by becoming more self aware. Engaging the next four steps will help you also to manage your impact on others at the time. This is important because almost always when you get triggered, you have a very high risk to behave in ways that will be misunderstood and unwanted.
1) Make detect what hooks and triggers send you into an unproductive state of mind and maybe even reactive behavior. 2) Get help seeing more clearly from colleagues, friends, family members who will see this happening to you oftentimes when you can’t. 3) Reflect to understand your patterns by doing SAW. SAW is an acronym I made up for Self Awareness Work. SAW is essential at all stages of your life and career, and is a continual life-long effort. And, 4) Practice present moment awareness.
You may need to find help from a proven self awareness process and by using ‘accountability partners’. An accountability partner is someone you have given permission to interrupt you and bring your attention to what you’ve said you want to improve. Sometimes you need a live coach (executive coach or life skills coach) and at other times you may simply need a proven method to help you think and process the situation more clearly and efficiently. Both coach assisted work and self reflective private work are important efforts to make for your own self improvement and in addition, is one of the best ways to also help others change and improve too.
Learning to rise above and manage the onset of disturbing reactions and internal states inside of yourself in relation others in your life is truly a liberating experience. And with practice, the liberating effects will stick. An essential piece of work that is done with therapists, coaches, counselors, and friends and trusted colleagues is how to be liberated from reacting to external factors one has little or no control over.
In today’s work environment, most organizational cultures are fraught with so many difficult to discern factors that derail clear thinking and productive behaviors of even the best of professionals, so becoming more skillful at dealing with triggers is a critical learning for us all. When we get a real good handle on them, it can feel like letting freedom ring!