Letting your triggers become your teachers

The moments when we get triggered are tough. These are the moments we often get pulled into reactivity, get overtaken by strong emotions, shut down or freeze. Sometimes we do and say things we later regret. 

So the word ‘triggered’ can be used in lots of different ways, but what I’m referring to here is when we have a strong emotional response to some kind of stimulus in the environment. Often another human being!

So listen to my latest podcast below, or keep reading, to find out how you can use the moments when you’re triggered, to become mentally stronger

I’ll be talking about how we can work with difficult and charged emotions in skilful ways, and how we gain insights in those moments that can help us make rapid gains in wisdom, self-awareness and mental strength.

We all get triggered sometimes

Years ago, I heard a story about a Swami who was a very accomplished meditator, and a respected and revered teacher. For many years he lived in an ashram and would go into weeks on months of deep meditation and was living in a state of contentment.

So, the Swami comes out of the Ashram after a few years of being in practice and has to renew his Visa. He goes to the Visa office and has to line up for hours and hours.

After a long wait, he finally gets to the front of the line. He hands over his papers, and the man behind the desk says, “You have the wrong forms. Go and fill these ones and line up again.”

The Swami, in that moment, becomes totally taken over by anger and impatience and yells at the man behind the desk. 

He goes back to the Ashram and declares, “I think being here is really handy, but it’s out in the world where we really put these skills to work.” 

That’s where our mental strength really gets a workout. In moments like that where life rubs us up the wrong way. Whether it’s in the visa office, when someone cuts in front of us in traffic, when our spouse does something we don’t like.

Why do we get triggered and reactive?

One of the things that can happen when we get triggered is that we immediately have this urge to do something in the external environment. We might want to yell at someone or say something to put them in their place. Maybe give them an evil look, write a hasty email, or make a hasty phone call. Or have that urge to beep your horn really loudly at a driver in traffic. Or to act coldly towards someone and withdraw. 

Any time we feel threatened or afraid in any way, we have a strong tendency to immediately lurch into ‘attack and defence’ behaviours very quickly. That’s because of the way the human mind has evolved. For our caveman ancestors, this adaptive response was a wonderful way to protect ourselves quickly in any moments of immediate danger. These days though, if we’re just acting out all our intense emotions in a reactive way, that is going to be very unhelpful. 

So, what can we do instead?

How to lean in instead of acting out: A three-step practice to tame you triggers

One approach is to practice leaning in instead of acting out. You can do that in 3 steps. These steps help you regain your inner calm, restore your mental clarity and act with intention and awareness.

1.Name it to tame it

At any moment when we’re triggered, we can first take a pause. If possible, take a deep breath as this down regulates your nervous system a little. Just recognise the emotion we are feeling. 

Mentally name the emotion to yourself, “Okay, right now I’m feeling angry, or I’m feeling sad, or scared.”

Why is this so important? When you feel threatened or scared in any way, a part of the brain called the amygdala automatically activates the fight-or-flight response (whether it’s a rude comment, a misfortune, or an argument).

If you’ve ever felt such a strong emotional reaction that you felt out of control and reactive, this is because the part of your brain that controls your ability to reason and think clearly and objectively can get hijacked. This happens when strong emotions like fear, anxiety or anger trigger the brain’s fight-or-flight response. 

Early humans were exposed to the constant threat of being harmed or killed by wild animals or other tribes. To improve the chances of survival, the fight-or-flight response evolved. It’s an automatic response to physical danger that allows you to react quickly without thinking. It sends out signals to release stress hormones that prepare your body to fight or run away. 

The amygdala can disable the brain’s frontal lobes, which are the more evolved and what some refer to as the ‘smart’ part of our brains. Now when this happens, you can’t think clearly, make rational decisions, or control your responses. Control has been ‘hijacked’ by the amygdala.

But we can train in calming the amygdala and bringing the frontal lobes back online.

How it works

We can calm the amygdala by taking a deep breath, signalling to the body it let go of fight-or-flight and mentally naming what we’re experiencing. As psychiatrist Dan Siegel likes to say – we can name it to tame it.

Research shows that by mentally noting or labelling difficult emotions as they arise, we can experience up to a 50% reduction in the intensity of emotion. Not only that, but it brings the brain’s frontal lobes back online so that we can become less reactive and think more clearly again. Instead of reacting and saying and doing things we might later regret, now we can respond.

So, first step, take a breath in, name the emotion. We’re not trying to change the emotion, just noticing it, and accepting that it is here. Mentally it’s a simple practice, but it has a lot of power behind it.

2.Investigate with kindness and curiosity

Then in the second step we can take a moment to investigate what is happening for us with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. So instead of acting out our emotions now we lean into what’s happening and see what we can find out about why we are feeling the way we are feeling.

We might ask ourselves things like:

  1. What is going on for me right now that brought up these feelings?
  2. What kind of thoughts have I been having about what is happening?
  3. Are they true?
  4. What events led to me feeling this?
  5. What needs of mine may not be being met at this moment?

We can ask ourselves any number of questions, but the point here is just to mentally take a pause. Inquiring with ourselves, “Why am I feeling what I’m feeling right now?”. See if there’s any wisdom or insight that you can take with you.

3.Be self-compassionate

Third step is to bring a sense of nurturing and kindness to the emotion, and to yourself. You might even say something to yourself like “Oh, this is hard, may I be kind to myself at this moment.” 

Sometimes we are very judgmental and harsh with ourselves and others in moments of triggering. Kindness soothes the nervous system, settles the mind, and gives us back the mental space and composure to take wise and skilful action if needed.

Self-compassion triggers our body’s soothing system, and further down-regulates the stress response. It even releases a powerful squirt of oxytocin into the body. The body’s love and soothing drug, often called the cuddle hormone. It reduces cortisol and calms cardiovascular stress. 

You can also bring a hand to your heart, or you can place it on the part of your body where you might be feeling the emotion the most. It might be in the belly or even the head. Bringing yourself kindness and compassion in the moment when you need it the most.

This week’s mental strength practice

For the next 7 days, I invite you to try this mental strength practice for yourself and test how it works for you. Each time you get triggered in any way. 

Try leaning in instead of acting out

Trying it out with even really small annoyances and irritations can be helpful. Building your skills for when the bigger moments come along to challenge you.

The next time someone says something insensitive, lets you down, is late, cuts in in traffic or rubs you up the wrong way, practice the three steps…

  1. Take a breath. Name the emotion.
  2. Investigate with curiosity and kind awareness.
  3. Be self-compassionate.

And of course, you may need to take some action, or you may not. If you do need to take some action you will do it with more wisdom, awareness and effectiveness. Using these three steps as a framework to do so.

As always as you practice this mental strength skill, pay attention to the effects it has on your body, mind and in your life. If it’s helpful, keep using it to get mentally stronger over time.

If you’re finding these practices beneficial to your life, and you’re ready to take your mental strength to the next level, I invite you to join me in Headstrong. It’s my 8-week intensive mental strength program. Headstrong offers the best of everything I’ve learned in over 2 decades of mental strength training and teaching. It’s designed to get rapid transformational results and arm you with powerful tools and skills that will last a lifetime. This program will help you not only survive, but thrive, even in tough times.

Thank You For Listening

I really appreciate you choosing to listen or read about mental strength with me. If you found benefit from today’s episode/post and you think others might benefit from hearing about it, go ahead and share it using the social media buttons below.

I would also be super grateful if you would consider taking a minute or two to leave an honest review and rating for the show on Apple Podcasts. They’re extremely helpful when it comes to reaching our audience and I read each and every one personally!

Finally, remember to subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts to make sure that you never miss an episode.