In today’s world of work, pressure, conflict, criticism, and differences of opinion are everyday occurrences so it’s not uncommon to find ourselves triggered by people and situations. Triggers are emotional reactions that, if left unchecked, can make life harder for ourselves and those around us. It’s crucial to recognise that our immediate reactions are often influenced by past negative experiences, which don’t always provide a rational perspective.

How to manage triggers

Developing emotional intelligence is key to handling triggers effectively and involves three essential steps…

  1. Notice and take ownership of reactive thoughts… When you find yourself triggered at work, the first step is to become aware of the reactive thoughts racing through your mind. These thoughts may often revolve around your self-worth or the competence of others. For instance, your inner critic might be saying, “I’m hopeless,” or judging others as “They’re useless…” Acknowledging these thoughts is the first step towards taking control of your emotional reactions.
  2. Observe and feel your emotions… In the face of a trigger, it’s essential to acknowledge and feel your emotions rather than suppress them. Left unprocessed, emotions can remain trapped within us, resurfacing whenever similar situations occur. By embracing and being curious about our emotions, we can reduce long-term stress and inner turmoil. This step involves taking time to reflect on what you’re feeling and why, allowing you to gain a deeper understanding of your reactions.
  3. Acknowledge workplace challenges… The workplace is a dynamic environment where challenges are inevitable. No matter how hard we try to protect ourselves from testing situations, they will occur. Recognising and accepting this can help us better prepare for those moments. Understanding that workplace difficulties are part of the territory can reduce the emotional impact of triggering events. When embraced challenging conditions can serve as a catalyst for growth and learning.
    Integrating emotions

Part of our work with leaders and teams focuses on them recognising, regulating, and integrating their emotions when triggered. By embracing emotions rather than trying to suppress them, we bring more understanding and compassion to the workplace. In turn, we create environments where individuals feel better about themselves, their work and their colleagues. Ultimately, they are more effective in their roles.

How to know when you’re triggered

To effectively navigate our emotional reactions, it’s essential to recognise the signs of being triggered.

Here are some common indicators that you may be triggered:

  1. Negative looping thoughts: You may find yourself caught in a loop of negative thoughts about your worth or the competence of others. These thoughts often start with phrases like “I’m hopeless” or “They’re useless because…”
  2. Rollercoaster of emotions: Emotions can fluctuate wildly when you’re triggered, moving from anger to fear, guilt to resentment.
  3. Impulsive or irrational behaviour: When triggered, you might behave impulsively or in irrational ways. This can involve over-exaggerating or underestimating the significance of a situation.
  4. Physical sensations: Physical sensations in the body are common when triggered. These sensations may include tension, numbness, heat, tingling, or adrenaline rushes.
  5. Strong impulses: You may feel the urge to confront the situation, leave, or withdraw and keep your head down. These responses align with fight, flight, or freeze survival reactions.

Triggers are your teacher

Every time you’re triggered, it’s an opportunity to learn something about yourself. However, in the heat of the moment, it’s nearly impossible to think clearly. When we’re triggered, our brains release chemicals in the form of emotions, which flood our bodies with negative feelings. These feelings, in turn, shape our thoughts, creating a thought-feeling cycle that makes it challenging to choose a positive way out… you can read more about thought-feeling loops here in our previous blog.

Once the chemicals have subsided, we can pause and reflect. Now, triggers become our teacher.

When we begin to recognise the source of the trigger within us, there’s learning to be gained. Being curious brings understanding, and enables us to regulate our emotions next time we find ourselves in a similar situation. Managing triggers in this way is a vital component of emotional intelligence.

Conclusion

To create a more empathetic and productive work environment we need people who can

  1. Take ownership of reactive thoughts.
  2. Observe and process emotions.
  3. Accept the inevitability of workplace challenges.

Normalising emotions and acknowledging their role in our lives brings greater understanding and compassion to ourselves and others. The result is people feel better about their work and become more effective at what they do. The next time you find yourself triggered at work, remember that it’s an opportunity to learn, grow, and develop your emotional intelligence.

More from essentially human

In our work, we teach leaders and teams simple techniques like eyes-open meditation and breath control to regulate their nervous system, helping them manage stress and overwhelm. Emotions manifest in our bodies, and it’s crucial to pause, feel what we’re feeling, and restore balance instead of ignoring the signals. You don’t need prior experience; understanding the ‘how’ and ‘why’ is key. These practices empower you to control emotions, turning reactions into productive responses and fostering healthier, more effective work environments.

If you’re inspired to make work more human and want to explore any of the topics covered in this blog, we’d love to connect.

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