Emotional Triggers and What To Do About Them


Businessmen fighting in the office

“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”  — Oscar Wilde

Do you ever react with anger or fear, and say or do things, and then wish you hadn’t?  You end up wishing you could take it all back, or rewind it, or get a do-over?

We all have emotional triggers.  An emotional trigger is when someone or something sets us off, and our emotions are triggered.

Manage Your Emotional Triggers or Emotional Triggers Will Manage You

We know the problems of over-reacting, blowing things out of proportion, or lashing out in anger.  But what can we do about it?

We can practice self-regulation and manage our emotional triggers with the Siberian North RailRoad technique.

In the book, Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace), Chade-Meng Tan shows us how we can manage our emotional triggers more effectively.

Self-Regulation is a Skill We Can Build

Emotional triggers can bring out our worst .. if we let them.  Little things that set us off, push us over the edge, or make us lose our cool, can really limit us, or even break us.  Self-regulation is a skill we can build that will help us respond vs. react to our emotional triggers.

Via Search Inside Yourself:

“One common situation in which self-regulation skills really come in handy is when we get triggered.  That is when a seemingly small situation causes a disproportionately large emotional response in us, such as when our spouse makes an almost innocuous comment about how something we do and we just blow up. 

From an objective, third-party perspective, such an event often seems like making a mountain of a molehill. For example, all Cindy did was playfully twirl the hair of her husband, John, commenting, ‘You’re getting a little thin up there.’ John’s face immediately became red and with anger he insulted her with an expletive, right in front of his campaign staff.”

Notice When You Get Triggered

If you want to handle your emotional triggers better, you first need to notice when you get triggered.  You need to become aware that you have been triggered, and that your emotions are kicking in.

Via Search Inside Yourself:

“The first step in learning to deal with triggers is identifying when you have been triggered.  Executive coach Marc Lesser provided these helpful suggestions on things to look out for:

  1. Body: Shallow breathing, rapid heartbeat, and sick to the stomach
  2. Emotions: Experiencing a fight-or-flight response, either feeling like a ‘deer in the headlights’ or having an emotional outburst (what Goleman famously calls an ‘amygdala hijack’)
  3. Thoughts: Feeling like a victim, thoughts of blame and judgment, difficulty paying attention

Triggers almost always have long histories behind them.  When we get triggered, it is very often because it brings back something from the past, that she’s doing that she’s-doing-that-again feeling

Triggers are also very often connected to a perceived inadequacy about ourselves that is a source of pain to us, sort of like a raw nerve.  For example, if I am feeling very insecure about my performance at work, a mere suggestion by my boss that she is slightly concerned about my project’s progress may cause a trigger reaction in me. 

In contrast, if I am fully confident about my work, my reaction to my boss will be entirely different.”

The Siberian North RailRoad Technique:  How To Manage Emotional Triggers with Skill

When you need to cool down fast before you blow out of control, you can practice the Siberian North RailRoad technique.  It’s a simple way to manage your emotional triggers and to learn to master your emotional responses to negative events.

Here are the 5 steps of the Siberian North RailRoad technique according to Chade-Meng Tan:

  1. Stop
  2. Breathe
  3. Notice
  4. Reflect
  5. Respond

Via Search Inside Yourself:

“Jennifer Bevan, one of our class participants, came up with the mnemonic that became the name of the practice.  She took the first letter of each day, SBNRR, and created the phrase SiBerian North RailRoad. 

I like the mental imagery behind the mnemonic.  It’s like you need to cool down from all that heat of an emotional trigger, and where better to cool down than one of the coldest and remote places in the world?”

1. Stop

That’s right.  Stop.  If you can take a quick pause, you enable yourself to choose a more effective response, rather than just react to your emotional trigger.

Via Search Inside Yourself:

“The first and most important step is to stop.  Whenever you feel triggered, just stop.  Pausing at the onset of a trigger is a very powerful and important skills.  Do not react for just one moment. 

This moment is known as the sacred pause

It enables all the other steps.  If you only remember one step in this practice, remember this one.  In almost every instance, this one step is enough to make a big difference.”

2. Breathe

Take a deep breath and focus on your breath as a quick way to center yourself.

Via Search Inside Yourself:

“The next step is to breathe.  By focusing the mind on the breath, we reinforce the sacred pause.  In addition, taking conscious breaths, especially deep ones, calms the body and mind.”

3. Notice

Notice your physical reaction within your body.  Don’t judge.  Just notice.

Via Search Inside Yourself:

“After breathing, notice.  Experience your emotion by bringing attention to your body.  What does this feel like in the body? In the face, neck, shoulder, chest, back? Notice changes in tension and temperature.  Apply mindfulness by experiencing it moment-to-moment without judging.

What is most important at this point is to try to experience emotional difficulty simply as a physiological phenomenon, not an existential phenomenon.  If it is anger you are experiencing, for example, your observation is not ‘I am angry’; it is ‘I experience anger in my body.’”

4. Reflect

What’s behind your emotional reaction?   See if you can figure out why you react to the trigger.

Via Search Inside Yourself:

“Now we reflect.  Where is the emotion coming from? Is there a history behind it? Is there a self-perceived inadequacy involved? 

Without judging it to be right or wrong, let’s just bring this perspective into the situation.  If this experience involves another person, put yourself inside the other person looking out at you.  Think about these statements:

  1. Everybody wants to be happy.
  2. This person thinks acting this way will make him happy in some way.

Again, bring perspective without judging it to be right or wrong.”

5. Respond

Focus on a positive outcome and choose how to respond.  This is your learning opportunity or your self-leadership moment, and it’s the moment you want to be proud of later.

Via Search Inside Yourself:

“Finally, we respond.  Bring to mind ways in which you might respond to this situation that would have a positive outcome.  You do not actually have to do it. Just imagine the kindest, most positive response.  What would that look like?”

You’ll get better with practice.

If nothing else, just inserting the sacred pause when things set you off will help you start to get a better handle on your triggers, and, as a result, you’ll get better at managing your emotional triggers, with skill.

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