Managing Emotional Triggers: The Power of Checking In

Managing Emotional Triggers

Managing Emotional Triggers: The Power of Checking In

In Ireland, the phrase ‘have a word with yourself’ is a passive-aggressive statement, commonly levelled (through gritted teeth) at people who lack awareness of the inappropriateness of their actions or the impact they have on others. On more than one occasion I have been privy to conversations where I am assured (scathingly) that someone would really benefit from the opportunity to ‘have a word with his/herself’. It therefore comes as no surprise, to discover that relations are often strained between those observing the need for ‘the word’ to be had, and those who may need to have it!

Were either party in a more rational and constructive space, they might be open to re-framing this process as ‘checking in’. Put simply, when we check in with ourselves, we take stock of how we are feeling physically and emotionally, our thoughts and actions, how we are viewing the world, how we are showing up, and how we are interacting with others. It requires us to engage with ourselves and reflect, rewind and replay, to focus on the impacts we have had and most importantly, to consider what we will continue to do and what we might do differently.

In his world-famous model, Daniel Goleman highlights 4 distinct elements that help us build a firm foundation in emotional intelligence. Self-awareness is without doubt the critical starting point to becoming an emotionally intelligent leader.  Checking-in with ourselves and others is a great method for building our self-awareness, which in turn leads to the opportunity to self-manage more effectively.  It also gives us valuable information about the people around us, and this in turn increases our social awareness. Practised well, all these factors combine towards developing more effective relationship management skills.

Managing Emotional Triggers:

In our previous post on the Rational Defensive Triangle, we describe how when triggered, we can become defensive.  The defensive state leads to diminished awareness and diminished choice, and in an extreme defensive state ‘up the triangle’, we can literally switch to ‘autopilot’, as the amygdala hijacks our brain’s emotional control. Learning how to check-in and practising checking-in regularly, reduces the trajectory of our defensive ascent – in effect hitting the ‘pause’ button on our reactive state.  This means that although we may still have the same triggers, we learn to recognise that we have become triggered much sooner in the process, while we are nearer the rational end of the continuum. This enables us to access greater awareness and choice for a different outcome. So how can we check in effectively?

1. Check-in with your physiology

Your body language shapes who you are” Amy Cuddy

While actual fight or flight only takes place in the case of extreme stress or threat, the body gives us lots of early clues through our physiology that we have been triggered. As soon as the brain’s defence centre, the amygdala, is triggered, it starts to release hormones that enable us to fight (adrenaline) or take flight (noradrenaline). This can result in headache, muscle tension, tightening of the jaw, dry mouth, increased or shallow breathing, churning or tightening in the stomach, restlessness, skin becoming flushed or pale, increased sweating, reducing or increasing our physical space, etc. Unchecked, this can lead to pain, discomfort, feeling physically unwell and long-term stress. When it has passed, we are left feeling fatigued.

While we are not always aware of the trigger, we are often aware of the physical response. By checking in with our physiology at regular intervals throughout the day, we can take stock, reset the body and evaluate what has triggered our response, however mild it may be.  Learning our body’s default responses can act as an excellent ‘early-warning’ system that we have been triggered.  Equally, checking in when we are feeling physically calm, flexible or energised can lead us to identify positive experiences with the potential to be repeated. As we become more aware, we can learn how to channel, relax or release energies appropriately.

2. Check-in with your emotions

“Although many of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think” Jill Bolte Taylor

Taking note of our reactions, emotions and feelings, recognising and naming them, is critical to managing them.  The more primitive part of the brain, the limbic system, is hard-wired to pay attention to emotions, as signallers of opportunity or threat. When triggered, the amygdala shuts down ‘thinking’ signals from our rational neo-cortex (the newest part of the brain, responsible for IQ and language), and instead hands the keys to the emotional centre, the limbic system. We can therefore often experience or act out our feelings and emotional responses before we have time to recognise, name and process them.  By learning to check in with how we are feeling on a regular basis, at both ends of the rational/defensive continuum, we can identify more emotionally intelligent approaches to acknowledge and explore how we are feeling, rather than letting our emotions ‘drive the car’. Checking in before the emotions are in the driving seat increases awareness and choice, and can prevent potential collisions.

3. Check-in with your thoughts

“Change your thoughts and you change the world” Norman Vincent Peale

Cognitive thought is difficult to access when we are triggered. Emotional and physiological reactions cloud the brain’s ability to ‘dial-up’ the neo-cortex, where language, logic and awareness of our environment all happen.  This is why we are often only able to find the words, and access the knowledge we were looking for, after a confrontation, not during. By checking in with our thoughts regularly, and finding a way to express them when we are nearer the rational end of the triangle, we increase our potential to keep the access lines to the neo-cortex open.  Take note: personality type preferences have a role to play here – those of us who have a preference for introversion prefer reflection and the written word to express our thinking.  Those with a preference for extraversion, prefer to speak in order to think.

4. Check-in with your behaviours

“All behaviour is driven by self-esteem” Will Schutz

If you have behaved in a way that has had a significant positive or negative impact for you or others, check-in on the triggers behind that behaviour, and the thoughts and feelings driving it.  What was the behaviour? Was it rational or defensive? Reactive or controlled? What impact did it have? What purpose did that serve for you? What was the outcome? What can you repeat? What should you adjust next time?

When to check-in

The place most of us first learn to check-in is usually after an ‘event’. When we are back in the right headspace, we reflect on how we are feeling (emotionally and physically) and we take note of our thoughts.  Our advice is to continue to practice this, but don’t wait for an ‘event’.  Create a habit of regularly checking in with yourself, throughout the day, little and often, exploring your physiology, feelings and thoughts, in order to reflect. Consciously and deliberately reflecting, for 5-10 minutes at a time, in a relaxed, calm and positive space is good practice.

When you have become familiar with the practice of checking in with your physiology, emotions, thoughts and behaviours, you can then start to check-in during your actions and interactions. How are you responding in the moment with others? Are you calm or triggered? How are you thinking and feeling? What are the signs?  Is there a need to pause or course correct? What can you change to achieve a different outcome? How are you self-regulating? Check-in with yourself during your day.  Note your reactions, press the pause button and if necessary, reset in the moment.

Finally, checking in before is a sure sign that we have become skilled at using this valuable technique.  Be it with others, or in an individual scenario, by checking-in before we enter the situation, we can anticipate and choose how we will feel, think, react and behave.  Proactively engaging in a mindful state, at the bottom of the rational defensive triangle, maximises our ability to be aware, make good choices and achieve the outcome we desire – a much better version of ‘having a word with ourself’.

Paula Nugent

With over 25 years’ experience in Learning and Development in Retail, Financial Services and Customer Services in Ireland and the UK, Paula has held a number of Consultant and Management roles. She has extensive experience in the fields of consultancy, learning design, facilitation and coaching and prides herself on a partnership approach with clients. Paula has expertise across a broad range of individual, organisational and team development interventions, and is highly skilled in bringing objectives and goals to life through creative, authentic and engaging design and facilitation. Paula specialises in programme development in the areas of Leadership and Management Development and Retail Service and Sales skills and behaviours.

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