Situations That Trigger Our Physical And Emotional Reactions

Irvine Nugent, Ph.D. –Behavioral Analysis Expert
Irvine Nugent, Ph.D. –Behavioral Analysis Expert

By Irvine Nugent

By Irvine Nugent

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Today we’re going to explore the world of triggers. What are they, and how can we manage them so that we control our triggers, instead of our triggers controlling us. Each of us have a trigger point. Just like a fingerprint. It’s unique for each and every one of us. Today I want to ask where do they come from? Why do they seem to be more prevalent? And then finally, what can we do about them? I want to give you some practical exercises that will help you identify and manage the emotional triggers in your life.


You know, as human beings we were made for one thing – to survive. Within us is this incredible mechanism which helps us survive from one minute to the next. It’s almost as if we have this radar inside that is constantly seeking anything that might threaten our survival, and anything that comes up, anything that triggers some form of suspicion, throws us into an automatic response. That response is exactly what our triggers are. Our triggers are there to help us. Our triggers are there to make sure that we survive, and our emotions are responses to help us deal with different things that are happening in the moment. Our fear, our sadness, our surprise, our anger, all of them have evolved to help us deal with critical situations and each of them has a trigger point. As such, it’s incredibly important to know what our individual triggers are, and to understand why they seem more prevalent nowadays.

VUCA and common triggers

After the second world war, as we went into the cold war, the war college developed an acronym to express the new world that we were entering into. They called it VUCA, which stood for V – volatile, U – uncertain, C – complex, and A – ambiguous. What they were trying to express was this geopolitical reality, but in many ways they perfectly expressed the world that we’re living in right now.

How many of us are in workplaces that are becoming more complex? How many of us are in workplaces where the speed of change seems to get quicker and quicker and quicker? As human beings, we like safety. As human beings, we generally do not like change, and so the result is that these days, more than any other time, we are often triggered. In order to counteract that, it’s incredibly important to identify what your unique triggers are, and to ask yourself if you really know them. Over the years I’ve run many workshops on emotional intelligence, and one of the questions I always ask is “What are your unique particular triggers?” As time has gone on I’ve heard so many unique triggers that people have in the workplace. Listen to some of these, perhaps they’re your triggers too. Imagine this – you come into work, you’re feeling happy, you get on the phone and the first person you talk to is furious because of something that’s happened that wasn’t your fault. For some, that triggers them into an escalation of anger. In another scenario, imagine you come into work and hear that dreaded phrase. The simple words ‘budget cuts’ can evoke anxiety around a whole organization and for some it triggers them into fear and anger. For others, the trigger is being talked over. I worked with a client a few years ago and she was saying that it was a meeting that she had where a person would always talk over her. She was so derailed by that person’s actions – maybe it’s a passing negative comment, or a sarcastic comment. Sometimes those comments trigger us and we begin to shut down because of the complexity of the workplace. Sometimes it’s being left out of the loop because of the complexity that goes into making a decision, and for some people being left out of the loop is also a trigger. Those are just a few. Why don’t you take a moment now and think “What triggers me? What have I noticed about my own unique trigger pattern?” Because when we’re able to name the triggers, we then become able to identify ways of managing those triggers as well.

The importance of dealing with triggers to improve workplace functions

So why is it important that we know our triggers? Well, it’s really important because it impacts how we show up in the workplace. Whenever we are triggered, our ability to learn lessons, our ability to gather new pieces of information and to digest that information stops because we’re triggered in the moment. We also begin to have more binary vision. Everything becomes ‘this or that’. Our ability to see complexity is reduced, and we know if there’s one thing that our world gives us today it’s ever growing complexity, so the ability to be curious is incredibly important. We also see some people just shutting down and shutting their doors, literally disappearing because they don’t want to face the anxiety or the stress that they’re trying to deal with. All of these patterns are incredibly important because they impact not only ourselves, but the whole workplace around us.

Becoming aware of your triggers

So then the next question is, what can we do about it? Let me give you three ideas, three practices that you might want to integrate into your life. First is becoming more aware of when we have been triggered and the physiological actions that are happening because of that triggering. Let’s take one emotion – Fear. What happens normally when we are triggered for fear? Well, that’s really interesting. First of all, a message goes to the brain. It says “Hey brain, you’ve just been triggered for fear. You don’t need high level processing. We just need to deal with what is making us afraid.” And so oxygen is drained from the brain, and then that oxygen goes to other parts of the body because we may have to fight or we may want to flee, and so our breathing becomes stronger as the oxygen goes to our lungs. Our heart begins to beat a little bit stronger, sending blood to all the different parts of our body. Blood is drained from our stomach, because let’s face it, if we’re in the middle of a fear attack we don’t need to eat, and that’s why sometimes we begin to feel nauseous when we’re afraid. All of a sudden our voice begins to drop because our saliva becomes dry, we don’t want to say anything in case there are scary monsters around. That’s part of our evolution. Then finally all the blood goes to our muscles in the leg, and if we’ve got nowhere to go then our leg begins to shake. These are physiological signs that we may be triggered for fear. So therefore, knowledge of triggers, our unique trigger pattern and how physiologically it shows up in our body can help us have quicker and faster reactions.

Breathe from the diaphragm

Far too often we walk around and we’ve got our belly sucked in all day, and yet real breathing is breathing from our diaphragm. We should be able to feel our belly buttons expanding and contracting as we breathe. That type of breathing helps us to become calmer. It disengages the fight and flight mechanism that’s been engaged and helps bring us towards calm.

The seven second reset

And then finally, I want to introduce you to a little practice that I’ve developed, which is called the seven second reset. What the seven second reset is all about is resetting us in the moment, acknowledging that we’ve been triggered and then resetting the buttons so that we can act out of a place of choice and calm. Now, what’s a seven second reset? Well, very basically it’s this: second number one, place your feet on the ground. Placing your feet on the ground and beginning to feel your feet in your shoes, that physicality disengages with some of the emotionality that we’re feeling in the brain. Seconds two, three, and four is breathing in, and as we breathe in we also want to do a very quick body scan. How are we feeling in the moment? Where is some of the tension that we’re feeling? Are we feeling tension in our shoulders? Are we feeling tension in our jaws? Finally, seconds five, six, and seven is breathing out, letting go of some of that tension and making adjustments in the moment with our posture so that we are more alert, open and ready to respond in the way that we want.

Our emotional triggers are part of life, and it seems that everyone has to deal with them multiple times a day – but you know what? We have the power to deal with and manage our triggers. They don’t necessarily have to lead us into an automatic function. I’ve developed a practice, which I just shared with you, the seven second reset, and here’s a resource that you can use. So, if you’d like to you’re welcome to sign up for this free resource and receive a daily reminder each day to practice that reset.

Irvine Nugent, Ph.D. –Behavioral Analysis Expert

Irvine possesses fifteen-plus years in senior leadership roles in various organizations. Dr. Nugent is an approved Paul Ekman International Trainer and offers a wide range of workshops in the areas of emotional intelligence, nonverbal communication, executive presence and lie detection which are based on the practical application of scientific research.
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