Exploding emotions: Do you know your triggers?

Article submitted by Amy Sargent.

I couldn’t help myself. I knew it would be better to stay silent, to not comment, to cool down and walk away. But my frustration levels had hit an all-time high and I could feel my heart beating faster and faster as I thought about what I wanted to say…what I needed to say…what I had to say. So I opened my mouth and out it came. It’s as if I had no filter to screen out the ugly, hurtful, harmful words — they just tumbled out in a jumble of anger, resentment, and fury. I regretted them immediately as I saw the pain on my friend’s face — he didn’t deserve this lashing.  Sure, I was upset — but my lack of self-control made an already difficult situation even worse.  Now I’d inflicted hurt upon another with my sharp tongue, and both of us now felt bad.  Oh, if only I could take those words back! But the harm was done and it would take weeks to repair our relationship.

How many times do we act on impulse only to regret it later? If only we had a way to control our reactions…

Wait a minute. We do. It’s called behavioral self-control and it’s a competency of emotional intelligence. It’s that ability to keep disruptive emotions and impulses at bay. It’s that capacity to stay composed, upbeat, and unflappable, even in moments where our patience is tested.  It’s the power to restrain negative reactions and keep a clear head when we’re under siege. Those who are good at this are able to maintain their composure even in high-stress situations, and when faced with hostility or opposition, remain ‘cool” under pressure. Behavioral self-control is a powerful competency to possess, and we are all capable of owning it.

But let’s admit it: some of us aren’t so good at it. We react on impulse and become angry or agitated when conflict arises. We tend to be quick to anger, defensive, and can get involved in inappropriate situations because our ability to resist the temptation of a non-constructive response is weak.

What is it that causes us to make knee-jerk reactions when our emotions are involved?

Have you ever attempted to open one of those cans of pre-made biscuit dough?  You know the drill — you peel off the paper at the “Peel Here” tab, slowly, carefully, knowing once you pull it back to where it’s sealed, the trigger, there’s no going back: the can will explode and out pops the dough. It can be a bit of an unnerving process. I’ve actually heard of people who have a fear of that impending explosion and choose to not open the cans!  Similarly, we can be afraid to open our ‘can of emotions’ as our brain has a trigger point, too. The Amygdala is located in the temporal lobes and is the part of our brain that is involved with experiencing emotions. Part of the limbic system, its primary role is to process decision-making, memory, and our emotional responses (http://brainmadesimple.com/amygdala.html). An Amygdala hijack is a phrase coined by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, to describe an overwhelming emotional response that does not match up to the actual stimulus. Fear is usually involved. Looking back on the interaction with my friend, though my angst was understandable, my reaction was over-the-top in comparison to the reality of the situation. I exploded just like that can of biscuits, startling and disturbing both of us in the process. I experienced an Amygdala hijack. Instead of responding with reason, an emotional trigger caused me to, in the moment, experience fear, then determine that the situation was of much greater significance than it actually was.  The result? I said things that weren’t exactly the most beneficial to our relationship.

“He who blows his top loses all his thinking matter.” – Chinese proverb

We all explode from time to time. Losing it is natural, and normal if you will — but not conducive to building healthy relationships.  The good news is that behavioral self-control is something we can grow in, even if we’re pretty bad at it.

A good place to start is to keep an emotional mood journal.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy — just grab a piece of paper and a pen and/or your cell phone memo pad and start taking note of how you’re feeling in the moment…and why you’re feeling it.  Go ahead and try it — right now, how are you feeling?  Try to be specific with the emotion — especially around the negative ones. Instead of “mad”, maybe you’re frustrated, or disgruntled, or discouraged, or just plain tired.  Alongside the emotion, write down what you think the cause may be.  These ‘whys’ are your hot buttons — your triggers — that place where the seal on the can will burst.

Do this for several days — a week maybe — and look back over your entries to see if you notice any trends. Are certain emotions coming up at a particular time of day (pre-coffee, maybe?).  Are they only when you’re around a certain person? Are they occurring when you feel stress, or a pending deadline, or are they arising when you’re fearful about something? Jot down any patterns you observe.

Once we are aware of the emotions we are feeling, and when we’re feeling them, we then can move to managing our behavior. In week two, write down how you react when you are feeling these emotions. Do you get quiet? Do you say something mouthy? Do you stuff the feeling down deep and distract yourself with something else? Do you eat? Do you get negative and depressed? After noticing your reactions, note whether your reaction is helping the situation or making it worse. Then do a damage report. Access the destruction your actions are causing, on yourself and on your relationships with others. Sometimes, unfortunately, it takes seeing the harm we are doing to spur us to make a different choice.

“Anyone can become angry — that is easy.  But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, and the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way — this is not easy.” — Aristotle

The next step is to begin to look for new and more positive responses to those emotions. Brainstorm what  you could do differently and write these down. Post these somewhere where you can see them throughout the day. If the biscuits would stay fresh, I’d recommend setting a can on your desk as a reminder of how quickly an Amygdala hijack can occur — and how powerful the explosion can be. Maybe just download a picture and keep handy to serve as an admonition. When that old familiar feeling arises, glance at the photo and check your list. Take a breath, pause, and choose the response you want rather than reacting. Easier said than done, I know. Working with a trained social + emotional intelligence coach can help with this process.

“Our ability to pause before we react gives us the space of mind in which we can consider various options and then choose the appropriate ones.” — Daniel Siegel

Finally, once you’re able to respond to these emotions in a more constructive manner, note how you feel after making better choices. With most skill sets, practice makes perfect. Well, in this case, you won’t be perfect, but with practice you can start down the road toward behavior change, improving your mental well-being and making choices that lead to happier, healthier relationships. And maybe take some of the fear out of opening that can.

 

 

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