No matter how brave, hardworking, and intelligent you may be, there comes a time when stress becomes overwhelming and you get triggered. Triggers are those things that cause you to have a knee-jerk reaction that may or may not be the best response to a given situation.
When you are triggered, the emotional part of your brain takes over. You are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, the same neurotransmitters and hormones that have evolutionarily protected us from threats like bear attacks (freeze, fight, or flight). Your logical brain temporarily shuts down, and you lose the ability to solve problems, make decisions, and think rationally.
When this happens, you have been emotionally hijacked, and it is difficult to see things as they really are. You go into protection mode, and until the perceived threat or trigger has dissipated, you will remain there. Over time these reactions can lead to acute anxiety, depression, irritability, fatigue, and other health problems from heart disease to lowered immune response.
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Work-related stress has gotten a lot of attention lately. Recent studies estimate that in the United States alone it is costing the economy over $300 billion a year. And given the fact that workplace stress is blamed for 120,000 deaths per year, how we deal with it can literally be a matter of life and death — and a huge determining factor in our health, happiness, and productivity.
Stress is ubiquitous and inevitable, but we all react to difficult circumstances differently. How we manage stressful situations plays a huge role in determining how resilient we are. To better manage stress, start by asking how you respond when you are under pressure:
- How does stress affect you physically (e.g., tightness in your chest, sweating, knots in your stomach, headaches, etc.)?
- How does stress affect you psychologically or emotionally (e.g., feeling out of control)?
- How do you destress (e.g., laughing, meditating, practicing yoga, reading, etc.)?
Identifying your triggers is a key component in improving your emotional intelligence and resilience. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand your mood and emotions, to be aware of the moods and emotions of others and to use this awareness to guide your behavior. Emotional intelligence determines how you interact with others, maintain relationships, stay motivated, make decisions, manage your emotions, influence others, and much more. The stronger your emotions, the more likely they are to dictate your behavior.
As the mother of a special needs child with severe behavioral and emotional challenges, I get triggered regularly, and I have had to learn how to proactively manage my stress response. This starts with being aware of my emotions.
If you pay attention to the times when you experience stress, overwhelming emotions, and frustration, you’ll begin to notice a pattern; there is usually someone or something or that triggers a stress response.
For example, take your typical workday, which is probably filled with meetings, deadlines, and other stressors. Imagine that a colleague embarrasses you in front of your manager and peers, sharing that you missed an important deadline. Your shoulders get tense, your palms get sweaty, and your stomach tightens. You have just been triggered, in this case by a feeling of embarrassment. If you’re not careful, you can unknowingly think and behave in ways that impact your relationships and other experiences throughout the rest of the day.
Some common sources of stress we are all familiar with include:
- family dynamics
- lack of work-life balance
The good news is, once you are aware of your triggers, you can manage how you choose to react to them. The following questions are helpful in identifying your triggers:
- It makes me angry when ___.
- I become overwhelmed when ___.
- I feel offended when ___.
- I think it’s rude to ___.
- At work I wish people would ___.
- It makes me crazy when ___.
- I get irritated when I come to work and ___.
In social psychology, fundamental attribution error refers to our tendency to judge others by their behavior and assign it to their character, but to judge ourselves based on our intent. Essentially, we make assumptions about people’s motives and blame them for their actions. When they exhibit a behavior we don’t like, we label it as a character flaw. What we don’t realize is that in making these judgments about others, we increase our own levels of stress.
So, the next time someone says or does something that activates your stress triggers, practice acknowledging and understanding your emotions. Assume positive intent and look for the most hopeful interpretation of their behavior. Think about that example of a colleague pointing out that you missed a deadline. What if you interpreted the situation a bit differently? What if you assume that they were asked to give a status update and had no intention of embarrassing you? Yes, they could have approached it differently, but we’re all human, and we all make mistakes.
When you focus your intentions on the most positive interpretation of a person or situation, you begin to see things differently. Not only does it reduce your stress levels but you will also be surprised at how much more optimistic you feel. You will be on your way to being happier, more productive, and more resilient.
To put this practice into action, start by identifying one situation that is challenging your emotional intelligence, and then ask yourself:
- How is it impacting me physically, emotionally, and psychologically?
- What triggers these feelings and emotions?
- What action can I take to manage the situation and my emotional response more effectively?
Resilience is a set of skills that can be practiced and honed. While there is no shortage of stress in our lives, proactively managing your triggers will put you back in control. You will find that you are triggered less often and your responses are more manageable. By practicing these skills, you will not only reduce your levels of stress but also build emotional intelligence, grit, and resilience.