We all have triggers or “hot buttons” that cause us to become agitated, worried, or angry. These triggers can vary from person to person and are often influenced by our environment. For example, being stuck in traffic can lead to road rage, while technical issues with your computer can cause heightened stress levels. Additionally, certain people in our lives can be major sources of frustration, as well as tasks that require a lot of focus and energy.
Becoming aware of our emotional triggers and understanding how we react to them is essential for developing emotional intelligence. Becoming mindful of the three-step process - Awareness of the trigger, Acceptance of the trigger, and Contemplated Action - can help us to effectively manage our responses in a more emotionally intelligent manner.
Here’s a little vulnerability in a true case story and something that was a triggering event for me.
I live in Southwest Florida, and my community was devasted after Hurricane Ian made landfall on September 28, 2022. Like so many in our area, my home flooded from storm surge had to be completely gutted down to wall studs, and as of this writing, is being rebuilt on the inside.
One necessary item to rehab the inside of our home was 14 interior doors, something my husband and I thought would be simple items to purchase, especially when the ordering process went fairly smoothly inside a local Big Box store. The following morning after placing the order, I realized we were one door short, so I stopped in the same store after a difficult day and, for forty-five minutes, attempted to get assistance at the door department. I went to two other departments and asked for an associate to be paged, and although they promised to make the page, I never heard any announcement over the store’s loudspeaker. I then asked six other store associates, and not one of them was able to help me. One associate told me to go to customer service, where the line was about 30 people deep.
I felt my anger bubbling up, my body began overheating, and I became dehydrated. After feeling overwhelmed by the ridiculously long customer service line, I returned to the door department. Finally, someone behind the desk! When I approached the associate and asked for her assistance, I was thrilled when she said yes. I showed my appreciation by thanking her profusely for her help after waiting in line for 45 minutes to order one last door.
To my disappointment, she said she couldn’t order the door for me because she was “just a sales associate” and didn’t have the authority to place an order. My anger began to build.
She told me that I would need to come back another time, but couldn't give me a specific time frame for when they would be open again. She explained that the person responsible for the department might have taken a break. I asked her to check the break room, but she seemed reluctant. Despite my attempts at being polite and explaining that I had already waited for over 45 minutes, she did not budge, and remarked that "associates are entitled to take breaks." That was the last straw for me, and the anger I suppressed was at a breaking point and exploded out of me.
After months of enduring extreme stress, I snapped back at the associate and said she and her associates were poorly trained and didn’t care at all about customers yet were quite good at processing payments. I continued to spout off and stormed out of the store, hollering while I made my way to the exit – not one of my finer moments.
This story gets even juicier. A few weeks later…
After receiving emails confirming the arrival of our doors, the store couldn’t locate any of them when we attempted to pick them up. Our general contractor and I visited the store multiple times to locate and collect our order, but we were unsuccessful each time. The store associates became increasingly agitated with our requests for help, often yelling at us as we inquired from one associate to the next and then to a supervisor.
The experience was utterly shocking to me. Although employees of this store were poorly trained, among other deficiencies, my response exacerbated my stress and wasted more time. In retrospect, my husband and I would have been better served by canceling the order after the initial negative experience and taken our business elsewhere.
We all get emotionally hijacked at some point or another if we don’t intercept our emotions before they become reactions. Failure to pause in these moments of strong emotional arousal leads to a lack of emotionally intelligent expression. The results are wasted time, unhealthy interactions with others, and an even bigger stress response.
Here are some easy to apply systems to consider when preparing for another amygdala (emotional) hijacking.
First, the 3A’s:
Awareness – first, it’s necessary to bring attention to and understand what we are feeling and why. This isn’t as easy as it may seem. We might not know how to identify what emotion we’re experiencing, especially if there is an array of (potentially conflicting) emotions.
In my example, I was angry, and there was also extreme frustration that was fueling my anger.
Tips for developing awareness: Journaling can be helpful in documenting and making sense of triggering events. It allows you the opportunity to reflect and compare patterns over time to increase emotional self-awareness.
Acceptance – essential to managing our emotions and reactions. It is an important step towards cultivating our emotional intelligence, allowing us to examine different viewpoints objectively. In accepting the reality of our situation – no matter how unpleasant or difficult it may be – we gain a sense of control that empowers us to take charge of our emotions and reactions.
Action, specifically contemplated action, is choosing how to respond in a positive and impactful way, which leads to the next phase of the system, also using memorable alliteration. The 4P’s Process is used by Multi-Health Systems and their model of Emotional Intelligence, the EQi-2.0.
Pause – When we take a moment to pause, our prefrontal cortex is allowed to intervene and regulate the amygdala's more primitive "freeze, flight or fight" instincts. This process can be likened to pressing the proverbial "pause button" on a remote control, granting our brains the necessary moments of reflection and self-regulation.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most effective ways to activate this pause, as it helps interrupt the stress response cycle and provides a much-needed moment of clarity. It also allows us to access higher-order functions in our brains.
Process – after allowing some time for the sympathetic nervous system and amygdala to reset, the next step is to reflect upon potential next steps. There are two parts to processing – idea generation and anticipating how an obstacles may impact our desired outcome.
Idea generation is an invaluable creative process that can help spur innovation and create solutions. To achieve the greatest success with this technique, it is important to generate as many ideas as possible without judging or critiquing them. This ensures a large pool of possibilities from which to choose, as well as allowing for the creative flow to remain unencumbered. Additionally, taking the time to actively move during idea generation can help keep things fresh and fun. Finally, after a large list of possibilities has been generated, obstacles can be anticipated for each potential solution.
Pick – Systems are more effective when there is a contingency plan involved. From the list of ideas generated and evaluated in the ‘Process’ step, choose two or three possible ideas. Consider Plan A to be the most desirable, mind-blowing option. Plan B is the middle of the road, safe and reliable option. Plan C is the bare minimum option from which anything less is intolerable or acceptable.
Perform – Time to implement the option you have chosen from the ‘Pick’ step. This final step is the actual “doing” or behavior that you have carefully and intentionally contemplated. After performing, wrap up the system by evaluating the impact or outcome, as it’s the only way to determine if you will rinse and repeat or tweak in some way. Having an accountability partner or strategic advisor can be a bonus to share feedback so you may continuously evolve and grow.
We all have triggers and a baseline for how much we can tolerate. Dr. Marshall Goldsmith says, “we are on this earth to make a positive difference,” - and the way we may show up in this manner more consistently is by exercising emotional intelligence. ‘Awareness, Acceptance, and Action’ is the first half of the system to exercise emotional intelligence, and Pausing, Processing, Picking, and Performing will ensure that our actions and responses are as positive as possible!