Why You Get Triggered At Work And How To Stay Calm

We all get triggered. The difference between one successful professional and another can lie simply in the way they deal with pressure and their ability to stay cool when triggered. According to George Bernard Shaw, “Self-control is the quality that distinguishes the fittest to survive.” This is particularly true in the corporate world. Let’s take some time to explore being triggered.

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Jan 28, 2015

Neuroscience helps us appreciate exactly what’s going on in our brain when we get triggered. With this knowledge, we are able to find ways to help us stay cool in these stressful situations.

One of the key areas we help our clients explore as part of our executive coaching programme is their values. Values represent those things that are important to you. People have different core values and just as companies take time to (or at least, should) identify their values, so should individuals. Values explain why one person loves their job and someone else in the same role hates it. When our values are aligned to the work we do, we experience job satisfaction and fulfilment. On the other hand, when our values are stepped on – be it in the workplace, by our partners or by our children, we lose our cool. We get triggered.

What’s Happening In Our Brain When We Get Triggered?

Our amygdala, part of our limbic system plays a key role in processing emotions, identifying threats and activating the well-known ‘fight or flight’ response. This leads to the release of various chemicals that result in the biological responses we recognise such as increased heart rate, feeling flushed and tense etc.

According to Daniel Goleman, a pioneer in the field of emotional intelligence, we experience an “amygdala hijack” which means our rational brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) responsible for weighing options and making rational decisions gets marginalised and we do or say things that we later regret.

Essentially, in these situations when we most need to tap into our PFC, we find that it has almost shut down. Now, we’re not knocking the limbic system. It is the key to our survival as a species and continues to keep us safe. Obviously if we were truly facing a threat e.g. a wild dog racing towards us, we need that activated limbic system to get us out of the situation! However, how often do we really need it to run the show at work?

Five Ways to Stay Cool when Triggered

What we need in these situations is to re-engage our ‘higher brain’, the PFC. Very hard to do when you’re in a charged state! Here are some steps:

  1. Get to know yourself. Identify your values and look out for situations where they are stepped on so you can practise ways to deal with them when these situations arise. For instance, do you dread feedback and the review process? Think about situations where you have been triggered, how you reacted and how in hindsight, you would have preferred to react? Anticipate and plan for similar situations so you are conscious and intentional about your reaction.

  2. Understand what’s going on in your brain when triggered and how that impacts your reactions. We have looked at some basic explanations here.

  3. Pre-empt your reaction by recognising your physical warning signs (such as heart rate starting to speed up, fist clenching etc.) so you can calm yourself down and prevent an amygdala hijack.

  4. Calm down. We are all familiar with the advice to stop, take a deep breath and wait before responding when angry. Deep breathes deliver more oxygen to our brain. This helps us to calm down so we can take a break and give our brain time to engage the PFC and plan our responses. Sometimes it can be as simple as Thomas Jefferson’s advice: “When angry, count to ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.”

  5. Practise mindfulness meditation. Research shows that mindfulness meditation may be associated with structural changes in areas of the brain that are important for sensory, cognitive and emotional processing such as the prefrontal cortex. This means meditation could help us build our capacity to restrain our impulsive emotional reactions and help us stay calm under pressure.

Over to you

What are your top tips for staying cool when triggered? If you would like some help with regulating your emotions, working effectively in a high-pressure environment or dealing with people you find difficult, get in touch for an informal chat about how we can help you.

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Org Culture Transformation , Obi James Consultancy Limited

Show me your leadership team and I'll tell you about your organisational culture. I am a culture change consultant and executive coach who specialises in creating a culture of shared leadership within organisations - often starting by employing my VIBE methodology to help leadership teams align around their vision, identity, behaviors and engagement - of all stakeholders, but most importantly of their people. I strongly believe that your leaders and leadership team's ways of working with one another shape your culture. With 15 years’ experience of successfully developing leaders, teams and organisations such as NHS, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Greater London Authority and Northern Trust, my methods have been designed to drive inclusion so that organisations can unleash the power of the collective - not just that of individuals. By pooling individual capabilites, my team and I strengthen workplace relationships leading to more effective communication, decision-making and collaboration - as all voices (particularly the marginalised ones who often deliver greater insight, creativity and innovation) are re-engaged and empowered to challenge the status quo. A former Vice President in HR, trained mediator and certified executive coach, I am also a certified Organisational and Relationship Systems Coach (ORSCC) and Team Performance Coach (CTPC). I also serve on the Faculty for Centre for Right Relationships (CRR Global) and train leaders, HR professionals and coaches on systems thinking empowering them to shape stronger cultures within their organisations. I regularly facilitate collective leadership across organisations, with clients including various executives and leadership teams within organisations such as UNHCR, Greater London Authority (GLA), Bloomberg, Blackrock, Lloyds, Farfetch, Save the Children and the NHS. In 2019, I was elected to join the Board of Trustees for Royal African Society (RAS) and have been interviewed on CNBC Africa, Africa’s first and most powerful business media brand. In 2019, I became a Judge for the International Business Book category at The 2019 Business Book Awards and will be judging one of the categories in 2020. I have spoken on Collective Leadership and the Power of Collaboration at global events such as the Finance Transformation Summit and at Cass Business School.  For more information, please visit http://www.obijames.com/

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