Dr. Kathy Obear

Triggered? Take control and choose how you respond – don’t just react

– Posted in: Navigating triggers

Triggering events occur when we react unexpectedly and/or intensely to an internal or external circumstance or “trigger.” This happens to us all.

The “trigger” itself can be just about anything – a colleague says something offensive; a participant in a meeting makes snarky comments; you read an inflammatory post on social media; a family member pushes your buttons at a gathering when you’re already stressed…

All too often, we react unconsciously on automatic pilot – and do or say things we later regret.

Instead, we can learn the tools to identify and interrupt the cycle of events that happen when we’re triggered – keep reading for more ideas and tools!

In a split second…

It can seem as though everything happens in a split second – and often, it does. When you react in any of the following ways to a triggering event, you probably won’t feel satisfied with the impact of your behavior, and you may be looking for a rewind button to erase what you just did!

See if you can relate to some of my own past triggered reactions. Have you ever:

  • Engaged too aggressively in an argument, trying to win?
  • Used sarcastic or belittling comments?
  • Gotten overly defensive?
  • Interrupted others to make your point?
  • Withdrew and avoided the person or the situation?
  • Shut down entirely?

The seven steps of the Cycle

Gaining a better understanding of what I call the Triggering Event Cycle can help you identify and interrupt a triggered reaction, allowing you to re-establish a sense of balance so you can choose a more effective response in the moment.

The Cycle begins with Step 1: A triggering event happens. From there,

Step 2: Our triggered reaction is often “rooted” in intrapersonal issues that are unexplored or unresolved. Examples of these internal “roots” include: current life issues, unresolved past issues, fear and anxiety, needs (i.e. for control; to be seen as competent; to be liked), and/or prejudices and assumptions.

Step 3: Usually unconsciously, we create a “story” about the event. We make assumptions about what we think is occurring. Our interpretations in the moment are almost always shaped by our intrapersonal roots that were re-activated by the trigger. Most people do not realize they are triggered at this point.

Step 4: The story we created at Step 3 now influences our reactions. For instance, imagine presenting a workshop on sexual harassment in the workplace when you notice a couple white men having a side conversation while a woman manager is describing the patterns of harassment she hears about from female colleagues.

If the story you created at Step 3 was that these men were disrespectful and probably the ones doing the sexual harassment, then your self-talk at Step 4 might be, “So typical – arrogant, privileged and so disruptive! They have to be stopped!”

If we have these types of triggered thoughts, we might generate emotions such as anger and resentment. Our physiological reactions might include a racing heart, clenched jaw, tenseness in our chest and neck, and trouble breathing deeply. Out of these internal triggered reactions, we then choose our intention at Step 5.

Step 5: The intentions of our responses are influenced by the stories we create and the self-talk we think at Step 4 – whether we’re aware of it or not. If we can recognize that we feel triggered, we can better identify our negative intentions before we act on them. In the previous situation, our negative intentions might include:

  • Try to intimidate, put down or embarrass the men
  • Make an example of them so other men don’t harass women in the future
  • Avoid the conflict, move on and hope it resolves itself
  • Try to force them to change
  • Protect the women in the room from these disruptive men

Recognizing our unproductive intentions in the moment gives us the opportunity to shift them to more useful outcomes, such as:

  • I’m curious about what they are talking about.
  • I wonder if they have a question.
  • I don’t want people negatively impacted by their side conversation – or for these men to shut down in our conversation.

If I ground myself in these types of intentions, I am far more likely to respond effectively when I feel triggered.  I once experienced this situation. As I engaged the two men, one of them shared their discomfort in not knowing what to do when a female colleague recently confided in him about the sexual harassment she was experiencing from her supervisor.

If I had reacted out of my triggered thoughts and assumptions, he might have shut down and not have gotten honest with the group – or had the chance to get peer feedback and coaching about how to move forward.

Step 6: When we’ve been deeply triggered, we may react in ways that are unintended or possibly harmful. There are many productive and useful ways to respond we when we feel triggered, including:

  • “Engage the resistance” – move into deeper dialogue by asking the other person or group questions to gain further understanding
  • “Relate in” – make a connection with the person(s) whose behavior was the source of the trigger by attempting to relate to them in some way before sharing a differing perspective.
  • Use self-disclosure to name the trigger
  • Share our feelings with others to see if they also feel triggered

Step 7: When we react unconsciously to a trigger, our actions could also trigger others around us. This may prompt additional triggers for us, causing the Cycle to continue. Consider asking yourself, “Did I do something first that might have triggered this person’s reaction?”

Feeling triggered is a common issue that affects practically everyone. The next time someone or something triggers you, think about the Triggering Event Cycle and how you can use it as a framework for responding more effectively.

Try it – and let me know the results!

Want even more strategies to help you navigate challenging situations? Click here to download a FREE copy of my book, Turn the Tide: Rise Above Toxic, Difficult Situations in the Workplace.

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