Written by: Anna Barnhill, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
No matter how good our emotional intelligence skills are, we all get triggered daily. Our emotional hot buttons get pushed and our ability to think gets hijacked by the flight or fight response. The things we do and say when we’re triggered almost always make situations worse. And if you are in a leadership role, this could be a huge hurdle as the potential to do damage is magnified. We don’t have a lot of choices about whether we get triggered or not. But we do have a choice about what happens next. The key is to learn how to manage ourselves when we’re triggered.
What Triggers Emotions?
Our unmet needs become our emotional triggers because they represent a gap between what we desire and what we have or experience in our lives. This gap can create a sense of lack or dissatisfaction, which can trigger emotional responses such as frustration, anger, sadness, or anxiety. For example, if we have an unmet need for being valued and respected, we may feel triggered when someone doesn't give us the attention or acknowledgment we desire. This trigger can activate a range of emotions, from sadness to anger, depending on the situation.
How our unmet needs become our emotional triggers is rooted in our belief systems and past experiences. Our beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world around us shape our expectations and desires, which can lead to unmet needs. Our past experiences also play a role in shaping our emotional triggers. For example, if we have experienced rejection or abandonment in the past, we may be more sensitive to situations that could trigger those feelings again.
Overall, our emotional triggers are a natural response to our unmet needs, whether we yearn to be understood, accepted, liked, valued, respected, or treated fairly. By understanding our triggers and the underlying needs they represent, we can work to address those needs and find healthier ways to cope with our emotions.
How to manage your triggers?
I have created a 5-step SHIFT ™ process that helps my clients to feel more in control and increase their personal agency. This approach allows them to achieve better results and avoid the collateral damage that usually comes from acting when triggered. The intent is to consciously shift our energy out of our triggered state and help our executive brain regain control. As leaders, we want to learn to do this as quickly as possible, so that we can respond appropriately to triggering situations. The essence of this practice is to cultivate a mindful discipline of not acting when triggered and bringing ourselves back to a state of balance and inner clarity. Here are the five steps:
Step 1. Self-Awareness – Notice when you are triggered.
The first step is to catch yourself reacting when your emotions are triggered. Listen to your mind and body. Beyond surging emotions, you will experience some physical symptoms: pounding heart, sweaty palms, shakiness or dizziness, tense shoulders, tight throat, or clenched fists.
Step 2. Hail – Name it.
Name what is happening and greet it without judgment (“I shouldn’t feel this way”). Simply say: “I’m noticing that I’m triggered. If you don’t see it and acknowledge it, you cannot change it. When you are triggered, your amygdala is in control. Psychologist Daniel Goleman called that overreaction to stressors “amygdala hijack”. I see it as “letting a 5-year-old drive your car and hoping you will get safely to your destination”. Of course, simply naming that you’re triggered doesn’t make it stop. The stress hormones will still be racing through your body. Your emotions will still run high. However, the moment you say to yourself, “I’m triggered,” instead of letting the 5-year-old be in charge, your adult self has just woken up. Even though you’re still triggered, you’re now able to proceed with the remaining steps.
Step 3. Intermit – Take a mindful break.
The critical next step is to gracefully remove yourself from triggering the situation, so you won’t get retriggered and avoid doing something you will later regret. The key is to exit gracefully. If not done right, you can make the situation worse. Here’s an example of an inept way to exit: “You’re such a jerk! I don’t want to deal with you.” And you storm out of the room. It might feel good to let off some steam, but now you’ve created a mess that you’ll have to clean up later. Here are a few examples of how to exit “gracefully”: “I’m feeling a bit reactive/unclear/emotional. I could really use a little time to collect my thoughts. How about if we get together after lunch and try to resolve this?” or “It seems like we’re stuck/bogged down. How about we take a break and come back later and take a fresh look.”
There are also some indirect approaches, like taking a bathroom break or buying yourself some time by saying “Interesting suggestion! Let me check with my colleagues/run some numbers/do a bit more research, etc. and get back to you tomorrow.” When taking physical space is not an option, it is still possible to take some mental space. If you get triggered in a meeting, try taking the needed space by simply temporarily mentally withdrawing from the discussion.
Step 4. Find Your Footing.
When we feel triggered, our bodies respond with physical sensations like tense muscles, shallow breathing, and increased heart rate. Once we are no longer actively provoked by the trigger, the flight or fight response will gradually subside, and we begin to return to inner balance. But it can take a while, depending on the intensity of the trigger and your general state of wellness. We’re more susceptible to being triggered when we’re tired, hungry, or don’t have a healthy lifestyle. These same factors also influence how quickly we can re-center ourselves after having been triggered. Because we’re dealing with psychological rather than physical danger, we can keep re-triggering ourselves by thinking about the situation. You’ve likely experienced this. It’s many hours after you got really triggered by someone, but you’re still upset. Like a hamster on a treadmill, your mind is racing, replaying the same conversation over and over in your head. When there has been a serious emotional hijacking, full recovery can take hours – up to a day or more.
As leaders, we cannot always afford the luxury of letting nature run its course and waiting until we’ve come back into balance. We’re often in situations that require a timely leadership response. One effective way to find your footing and regain clarity of mind is to work directly with the body and breath. Deep abdominal breathing and 2 to 1 breathing techniques are evidence-based practices that can help you regain your inner balance and composure. With time and consistency, you can train your body and mind to respond more effectively to stressful situations.
Step 5. Take Action.
When we are triggered, we temporarily lose access to our EQ and capacity to make good decisions. The 5-step SHIFT ™ process helps bring us back to a place of inner balance and focus, where we have full access to our wisdom and the ability to creatively solve problems. We are now able to deal with the situation and respond consciously – not simply react. Now, we can look back at the original situation that triggered us to assess the truth of the situation. Is it true that someone is intentionally denying my need or am I taking the situation too personally? And if it’s true that someone is ignoring my need or blocking me from achieving my goals, can I either ask for what I need or if it doesn’t really matter, can I let it go? Is there something that needs to be done . . . or not? Often, we’re triggered by events that do not require us to do anything other than calm down. If we do choose to act, we can assess the situation from a place of clarity and wisdom and plan how to best achieve the desired outcomes. This approach doesn’t automatically guarantee success, but our success-to-failure ratio will be vastly higher than if we had acted while the 5-year-old was driving the car.
Here is an example of how the 5-step SHIFT ™ process could look in practice.
Let’s say you were the object of a racist or sexist remark at work. Understandably, you get triggered and a huge rush of adrenaline and cortisol is rushing through your body. Instead of letting the 5-year-old drive the car, you follow the 5-step process. First, you would notice that you are triggered, label what’s happening for you, and step away from the interaction to re-center yourself. Once you recover your balance, you are ready to deal with the situation from a place of inner wisdom. Perhaps the offending person is someone with whom you don’t have a significant ongoing relationship. Do you really want to spend the energy to go back and try to “educate” them? I’m sure you want to give them a piece of my mind when you were triggered, I would too. But upon reflection, you may realize you don’t have the relational context or the interest to engage with them. On the other hand, let’s say this person is a colleague, someone you are going to be working with closely over time. In this case, you may want to have a conversation. Now that you are not triggered, you can be clear on what you actually want to accomplish, and how to go about the conversation in a way that will most likely produce the desired outcome.
Once you understand and become self-aware of your triggers you have the power to make a conscious choice. You can either choose to let the 5-year-old drive and you follow the urge to say or do something in the heat of the moment and then regret your choice. Or you can follow the 5-step SHIFT ™ process. This emotionally intelligent approach enables you to effectively manage your triggers and bring your best self to every situation, which is the key to your leadership effectiveness and impact.
Anna Barnhill, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Anna Barnhill is an ICF Certified Executive Coach, Business Psychologist, Contributing Member of Forbes Council, and a leading expert in the field of emotional intelligence and authentic leadership. She brings over 12 years of experience helping leaders realize their full potential, increase their influence and effectiveness, and lead their teams with authenticity and greater impact. Her passion lies in helping executives and professionals integrate emotional Intelligence and authenticity into their leadership style to drive a culture trust, creativity, and innovation. Clients who work with Anna develop distinct leadership skills that bring immediate and long-term benefits to organizational success.