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Your Mother Was Right

By Glenn Kaufman on Nov. 13, 2015 in

I was riding the NYC Subway to a doctor’s office for my annual check up when the train grinded to a halt and sat there for what felt like an eternity.  It moved a few feet, and then again, it stopped.  Three PA announcements came on, each proclaiming a different reason for the delay.  I was now going to be seriously late.  I had no phone signal, and to make matters worse, the train eventually changed tracks and I was now several blocks further away from the office that was my ultimate destination.

After sprinting over to the appointment, obviously angry and stressed, it was no surprise that my blood pressure was very high, even after several readings.  And this was just the start of my day.  Many of my good intentions were now foiled or hampered by my unfortunate commute.  I was triggered.  My emotions got the best of me.

In this instance, I was lucky because I suffered through it alone…it didn’t involve other people.  At work, however, we often get triggered during our interactions with other people and now the potential for damage is greater.  In fact, sometimes we are convinced that it was another person that actually triggered us, and things can deteriorate rapidly.

There are basically two categories of events that can do this to us.  First are those things that disrupt our expectations and we genuinely cannot control, like my train situation.  These triggers are reality-based.  Second are things that we perceive as some sort of insult to our pride, our values or our beliefs.  Often, these situations contain a leap in our thinking that exaggerates our response.  However, they are not as threatening as they seem- we just react as though they are.

I did a lousy job of restoring my equilibrium after the train event, as evidenced by my very real blood pressure readings.  I let the transit system get the best of me that morning.  But what could I have done differently?

Basically, with any kind of trigger, there are a few things that can help.  The first thing is to recognize that you are triggered, and to do some reality testing.  What is the “self talk” that you are engaging in?  Is it amplifying your stress?  Can you manage to insert some better “messages to self” that acknowledge the situation, but do not jump to hideous conclusions about what will happen next?  It can be helpful to actually stop and tell yourself a story about what is happening, but with trying out some different endings with more positive conclusions.  After all, you haven’t yet experienced the real ending yet, and some of your control will inevitably be restored in short order.

Here’s the part about your mother.  When you are triggered, and it is of the perceived insult variety, the best thing you can do is provide some mental distance before reacting to whomever you think triggered you.  It turns out that your mother was right.  Counting to ten now has scientific validation as maybe the only means to stabilize your system and prevent you from further escalating your emotions.  Or, simply walk away and buy yourself some time.

Both of these tactics can actually help you to recover your equilibrium, however trivial they seem.  They are better than feeding the beast and creating a vicious cycle that will hamper your ability to use your brain in more productive ways following the heat of the moment.  Try them the next time YOU are triggered!


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