At the entrance to the Temple of Apollo in Delphi was the inscription, “Know thyself.” Those two simple words form the beginning and most important element of emotional intelligence. One of the key lessons we learn in this area is self-knowledge about how we react when where are stressed and triggered. This knowledge is especially important for trainers, as we are normally standing in the front of a room with attendees’ eyes (hopefully) fixed on us.
When we are triggered, there is nowhere to run, and we are forced to manage it in the moment. I would like to offer two simple exercises to help us move away from being triggered and all the limitations it imposes on us.
Your training session is going well. So far, it’s been a good group, apart from two learners who are beginning to annoy you. One of them keeps flashing you a look of contempt, and all of a sudden, without your ever giving your body permission, you begin to feel tense, and you feel your face becoming flushed. Your heart beats faster, and your breath rate increases. Your mind is distracted, and all you can focus on is that look. You’ve been triggered.
Sound familiar? While each of our triggers is unique, our reaction is broadly the same. What’s more, most of these reactions begin before we are aware of them. As much as we like to think that we are evolved and sophisticated, when it comes to how we react to stressors, we are closer to our cavewoman and caveman ancestors that we like to think.
Human beings are wonderfully made to survive, and the limbic part of our brain is constantly scanning for threats. When a threat is detected, an amazing set of reactions takes place. Oxygen is diverted form the brain to the lungs in case we need to make a quick escape. Our hearts beat faster, pushing blood to our legs for the same reason.
This system was perfect for the mornings when we wandered out of the cave and saw a woolly mammoth. We went into automatic functioning, with no thought required. The problem is that this survival system is still firmly in place, even though the woolly mammoths are long gone. When to comes to threats, our brains do not distinguish between real, imagined or relived threats. They are all treated the same way.
Adding insult to injury is the impact of that initial diversion of oxygen. When we are triggered and we go into a reactive space, our tendency is to look at things as black and white. Our ability for learning decreases, we tend to look for quick-fix answers and our capacity for curiosity decreases. We are less able to use humor, and things become more serious. Needless to say, this situation is less than optimal while facilitating training.
So, what are your options? There are two things you can do in the moment.
1. Focus on Your Breathing.
Research is only beginning to show the numerous benefits of being able to breathe properly and returning to that simple action when we are triggered. We are taught many things in life and school, but, unfortunately, learning to breathe properly is not high on the list. Our breathing should be rhythmic, engaging the diaphragm. When we are triggered, our breathing tends to become shallower and moves from the diaphragm up to our chest. Taking time to readjust your breath and regain this simple rhythm can work wonders. It also helps return oxygen to your brain, reengaging the higher functions you need.
2. Take a Seven-Second Vacation.
When you are triggered, place your attention for one second on your feet. Feel them touching the ground. That simple act of awareness can move you out of your present train of thought. For three seconds, breathe in and out. Notice what parts of your body are feeling tense and hot or cold. For three more seconds, breathe out and visualize the tension leaving your body. Notice your stance, and make a quick adjustment so that you are standing straight and open, letting your body return to a more confidence pose.
I still am annoyed with myself when I become triggered and let something small get the better of me. I have learned, however, rather than demonize each episode, to tell myself that this reaction is a reminder of my amazing biology, which kept my ancestors safe. All I have to do is breathe.