"Think, for a moment, about the life you're living. You skitter from activity to activity. The consequence is that you don't do anything particularly well. You're easily distracted and have difficulty paying attention. You rarely read anything challenging, if you read much at all, which is why so much of your knowledge is superficial. The same is true of your relationships. How does that description strike you? Have I got it pretty much right? My suspicion is I do, even if you are compelled to deny it.
Okay, now take a moment to scan your body. How are you feeling right now? Are you breathing any faster than usual? Do you sense any anxiety in your stomach or your chest? Or perhaps you're feeling irritated and annoyed by what I just told you about yourself. If so, fair enough. My aim was to trigger you. A trigger is an event, a behavior or a circumstance that consistently prompts negative emotions. In reality, I have no evidence that any of what I just said about you has any basis in fact. Even if some of my claims about you are true, they're almost surely wildly overstated. Even so, if you're like most people I've tried this on, what I said did trigger you, at least to some extent, and perhaps so quickly and subtly that you didn't even notice it was happening.
In physiological terms, we have two distinct selves. Under ordinary circumstances, our parasympathetic nervous system is in charge, and we're capable of thinking clearly, calmly and logically. In the face of a perceived threat, however, our sympathetic nervous system takes over. If you were triggered by what I said, your amygdala - your brain's early warning system - picked up the potential threat posed by my words even before your prefrontal cortex had a chance to evaluate whether they had any reasonable validity. In a fraction of a second, your amygdala prompted the release of hormones into your blood stream -- adrenalin, cortisol, and noradrenalin - which prepared you to defend yourself.
In everyday terms, it's called the fight or flight response. It serves you well if there's a real threat to your survival- say from a lion charging at you. The physiology of fight or flight mobilizes you to attack back quickly, or run like hell. So how did you react to my initial words? Was it a fight response, as in: "Who does this guy think he is, making these presumptions about my life?" Or perhaps you reacted in flight, and what you felt was a bit exposed, or embarrassed or self-critical?
Most of us are triggered multiple times a day. The reason is that our bodies don't make a distinction between a real threat to our survival and our more everyday fears. An angry boss, a conflict with a colleague, a difficult deadline, a dissatisfied client, an imposing workload, or an unreturned phone call can all prompt the fight or flight response. It occurs automatically, instinctively and often outside our conscious awareness. Our prefrontal cortex literally shuts down. We become incapable of making reflective, intentional choices. Instead, we react in ways we often later regret. Our initial challenge is to become aware of negative feelings that arise before we act on them. Because a trigger shows up first in our bodies. That may mean noticing your heart beating faster, a feeling of anxiety in your chest or a pounding in your head. That's when you want to apply what we call "The Golden Rule of Triggers." It's very simple: Whatever you feel compelled to do, don't. Compulsions are not choices, and they rarely lead to positive outcomes.
The biggest challenge when you feel triggered is to figure out what is you're experiencing as a threat. Why do certain events predictably trigger us and drive us into fight or flight emotions? Over the years, clients have shared thousands of examples of triggers with me and my colleagues. Remarkably, we've discovered that the origin of the trigger in nearly every case can be traced to a feeling of having been devalued or diminished by someone else's words or behavior. Our core emotional need is to feel secure. The need for respect is primal and survival-based. Perceived challenges to our self-worth are anxiety provoking at best and nearly intolerable at worst. The more we feel our value is at risk, the more energy we spend defending it, and the less energy we have left over to create and add value in the world.
Over the next week, try a simple experiment that can be life changing. Each time you notice a sudden surge of negative emotion, take a deep breath and exhale slowly several times.As your body calms down, your capacity to think clearly returns. At that point, ask yourself two questions: How did I feel my value was at risk in this situation? Was my value really at risk? It's a powerful first step in taking back control of who determines your value and who runs your life."