Written By Sarah Hodges
You know the feeling of being triggered.
Someone cuts you off in traffic, and profanities flow from your mouth like a drunken sailor as you erratically zoom around him and flip him “the bird”.
Your boss sends an accusatory email after work, and you can feel your face turn green as you morph into the Incredible Hulk and draft a seething reply.
Your printer runs out of ink just minutes before a big meeting, and your foot quickly puts a dent in the side of it.
When we’re triggered, the amygdala in our brain senses a threat and instantaneously sends our bodies into fight or flight mode. Before we have an opportunity to think about how we want to respond, we react — and many of us react by fighting. We yell. Sometimes we even get physical.
Then and Now
This fight or flight response is innate. In hunter-gatherer days, when we were chased by wild animals, it was a bad idea to pause and think about how to respond. A swift reaction was more likely to prevent yourself from being eaten alive.
In today’s world, however, feelings of threat look a lot different. We feel threatened when we sense that our social status is in question, or when we perceive that we’ve been forced into the out-group. Oftentimes, we feel threatened when we view a situation as unfair.
These threats, while real and uncomfortable, are hardly a matter of life and death, and they require us to respond differently than we would in the wild.
Modern threats require us to pause before we react. This action is much easier said than done, but once mastered, you become the master of yourself and your interactions with others. A simple pause can interrupt the stress response and allow you to evaluate your situation with logic — instead of reactivity.
Three Easy Steps
The next time you’re triggered, try these three easy steps to master your response:
#1. BREATHE AND ACKNOWLEDGE.
Simply start by taking a deep breath to connect with your body. Under threat, our sympathetic nervous system takes over our bodies. By turning your attention to your breath, you can soothe the stress response and take authority back over your own body. This is the beginning of mastering yourself under threat.
Once you breathe, acknowledge the emotion you’re experiencing. Label it, and tune into it. It’s important to recognize your feelings, and this action will directly feed into the next step.
#2. RECOGNIZE ALTERNATIVE PERSPECTIVES.
What are the alternatives? Give yourself a moment to remember that only you see from your eyes, and everyone has their own experiences to deal with. Maybe the driver who cut you off just received bad news from the doctor. Maybe your boss received incorrect information and is under too much pressure.
Approaching your triggers with empathy will allow you to harness higher brain functions. For example, accessing the prefrontal cortex will give you power to formulate a logical response — instead of resorting to unbridled emotion.
#3. CHOOSE YOUR RESPONSE… OR LACK OF RESPONSE.
Once you’ve accessed higher brain function by breathing and empathizing, you will be able to consider the best response — or lack of response — for your situation. This could mean waiting until the following morning to reply to your boss, or you may consider having a calm meeting with him in person. And the driver who cut you off doesn’t need to see “the bird” as you erratically zoom by him. A quick, notifying honk to alert him to his mistake is a safer choice for everyone on the road.
But, it’s just as empowering to know when NOT to respond. For example, you might try calmly walking away to find another printer, instead of kicking the one that’s out of ink. It’s better for the printer, better for your stress, and better for your relationships in the workplace.
The reality is that you can’t control what happens to you. You can only control yourself through self-mastery of your responses. Learn to pause, breathe, empathize, and then respond. If you can master this approach, your emotional intelligence and soft-skills will improve drastically — and so will your relationships.
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