We all get triggered. The difference between one successful professional and another can lie simply in the way they deal with pressure and their ability to stay cool when triggered. According to George Bernard Shaw, “Self-control is the quality that distinguishes the fittest to survive.” This is particularly true in the corporate world.
Neuroscience helps us appreciate exactly what’s going on in our brain when we get triggered. With this knowledge, we are able to find ways to help us stay cool in these stressful situations.
Let’s take some time to explore being triggered. One of the key areas we help our clients explore as part of our leadership development coaching programme is their values. Values represent those things that are important to you. People have different core values and just as companies take time to (or at least, should) identify their values, so should individuals. Values explain why one person loves their job and someone else in the same role hates it. When our values are aligned to the work we do, we experience job satisfaction and fulfilment. On the other hand, when our values are stepped on – be it in the workplace, by our partners or by our children, we lose our cool. We get triggered.
What’s Happening In Our Brain When We Get Triggered?
Our amygdala, part of our limbic system plays a key role in processing emotions, identifying threats and activating the well-known ‘fight or flight’ response. This leads to the release of various chemicals that result in the biological responses we recognise such as increased heart rate, feeling flushed and tense etc.
According to Daniel Goleman, a pioneer in the field of emotional intelligence, we experience an “amygdala hijack” which means our rational brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) responsible for weighing options and making rational decisions gets marginalised and we do or say things that we later regret.
Essentially, in these situations when we most need to tap into our PFC, we find that it has almost shut down. Now, we’re not knocking the limbic system. It is the key to our survival as a species and continues to keep us safe. Obviously if we were truly facing a threat e.g. a wild dog racing towards us, we need that activated limbic system to get us out of the situation! However, how often do we really need it to run the show at work?
Five Ways to Stay Cool when Triggered
What we need in these situations is to re-engage our ‘higher brain’, the PFC. Very hard to do when you’re in a charged state! Here are some steps:
Get to know yourself. Identify your values and look out for situations where they are stepped on so you can practise ways to deal with them when these situations arise. For instance, do you dread feedback and the review process? Think about situations where you have been triggered, how you reacted and how in hindsight, you would have preferred to react? Anticipate and plan for similar situations so you are conscious and intentional about your reaction.
Understand what’s going on in your brain when triggered and how that impacts your reactions. We have looked at some basic explanations here.
Pre-empt your reaction by recognising your physical warning signs (such as heart rate starting to speed up, fist clenching etc.) so you can calm yourself down and prevent an amygdala hijack.
Calm down. We are all familiar with the advice to stop, take a deep breath and wait before responding when angry. Deep breathes deliver more oxygen to our brain. This helps us to calm down so we can take a break and give our brain time to engage the PFC and plan our responses. Sometimes it can be as simple as Thomas Jefferson’s advice: “When angry, count to ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.”
Practise mindfulness meditation. Research shows that mindfulness meditation may be associated with structural changes in areas of the brain that are important for sensory, cognitive and emotional processing such as the prefrontal cortex. This means meditation could help us build our capacity to restrain our impulsive emotional reactions and help us stay calm under pressure.