Working with Triggers (Widening Our Window of Tolerance)

Jan 18, 2021 | Change, Stress

Triggers and reactions

Triggers. We all have them – those people and situations that cause quick, emotional reactions or a kind of numbing.

Maybe we turn on the news and feel outrage at what we see or hear and yell at the screen or turn the channel.

Maybe we interrupt or talk over someone to defend ourselves, or we simply zone out.

Triggers can happen all around us, each day, throughout the day – especially these days.

Polarization and triggers

Given the recent events at the U.S. capitol, as well as the different responses in the country to pandemic restrictions, it’s clear that many people are in a serious place of discomfort, constantly being triggered by opposing views.

In this polarized “us vs. them” place, it becomes very difficult to listen without reacting or shutting out the other side.

To keep ourselves feeling comfortable and not triggered, we surround ourselves with like-minded people and get our news from like-minded sources. It’s understandable, but it deepens the divide and lack of understanding.

I include myself here. I often try to switch to news stations that support “the other side” to try to understand what they’re saying, but I usually can’t stand it for too long before I feel disgusted or angry and switch it off. Triggered? You bet.

The brain’s response and self-regulation

The brain is always trying to make connections, see patterns and make predictions to keep us safe and closer to comfort and further from pain.

The salience network is a network that helps us to pay attention to what is important or relevant (i.e. “salient”). This network involves connections in parts of the limbic brain, and notices when patterns are broken, or something feels wrong or different.

When it notices something as wrong or different, the salience network can either direct our attention to an immediate reaction to keep us safe in a kind of fight or flight response, or to habitual or comforting behaviors to not feel the discomfort, like comfort food or bingeing our favorite show.

But following either habitual reaction, while it may serve us in the moment, does not serve us well over time.

Each time we react, we lower what Dr. Dan Siegel calls our “window of tolerance” for that trigger. In doing so, we lose capacity for self-regulation.

And of course, this reactivity does nothing to help heal the growing national divide.

Widening our window of tolerance

Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is the power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Dr. Viktor Frankl

As I share in my Pathways to Change program, that space Frankl talks about is awareness. By bringing awareness to the triggered reaction, whether it’s anger or numbing, we can change our habitual response and choose a different one (even if that’s doing nothing).

In this process, we move from habitual reaction to mindful response, and we change our brains’ neural patterns to one that supports greater self-regulation.

We still get triggered, especially in the beginning, and we feel the discomfort or disgust, but with awareness we pause and, even if just for a few seconds, widen our window of tolerance.

And with practice, as the neural pathways for self-regulation deepen, it becomes easier.

The win here is that, whether or not we create any change in the other person or situation, we change our brains.

We strengthen our connections from the limbic brain to prefrontal cortex and improve our ability to regulate our emotions and responses.

Tips for working with triggers and expanding our window of tolerance

  1. Know your triggers. When we know in advance who and what triggers us, we can be more prepared and aware in the moments they arise. Since the brain is always predicting, we can help it by being clear in advance about our triggers. Start paying attention to when you feel triggered – you can even make a list.
  2. Use the breath and body. Triggers activate the sympathetic nervous system which prepares the body to respond to stress (e.g., raising the heart rate, tightening muscles), so to widen our window of tolerance we need tools for activating the parasympathetic nervous system which calms our response. When we can’t change thoughts that trigger, it’s time to turn to the body.
    • The breath is one of the best available and powerful tools. Focus on slowing and deepening the breath, and lengthening the exhale. You might inhale slowly to a count of 5, and exhale to a count of 10.
    •  Splash your face with cold water. This simple act stimulates the vagus nerve which is a large parasympathetic nerve connecting many internal organs to the brain. (For more on the vagus nerve, read this post.)
    •  Hum, or if you are a yogi, chant om. This sound causes a gentle vibration in the vocal cords that stimulates the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic response.
    • Gentle movement and yoga, or simply relaxing the muscles, can also signal the nervous system to calm itself.
  3. Start small and have fun. Start with situations and triggers that are less charged and low-risk. You’re safer off listening to that t.v. anchor you don’t like than calling that boss that just pissed you off. You can even make a game of it. For instance, listen to an opposing media source and see how long you can go without reacting. Challenge yourself to slowly increase the time or challenge of the trigger.
  4. Stay present and listen. When you can stay present without reacting, try to listen to what’s being said. Really listen to understand, without the usual filters. If you notice you’re still reacting, get present to what’s happening within you. Notice your own thoughts, emotions and reactions in the physical body.
  5. Be curious. When you’ve gotten to a place of observation and listening – whether external or internal – then you can begin to bring curiosity to the situation. You can bring that curiosity to yourself and to the other person/people, asking questions like: what upsets you/them so much about it? What are you/they afraid of? What do you/they really want? You might even find some commonalities underneath the divide. (For more on the benefits of curiosity, see last month’s post.)
  6. Keep practicing. As you deepen your awareness and widen your windows of tolerance, you can begin to challenge yourself to listen more to family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances who disagree with or trigger you.

Opening windows for change

When people feel heard and understood by another, they feel safe. Their sympathetic nervous systems can relax, and only then can people be open to true communication and change.

So to create change – whether in ourselves, others or the country – we must start with ourselves. We must improve our ability to listen and tolerate our own discomfort.

Bonus: even if the other doesn’t change by our tolerance, we will have changed ourselves and our brains by practicing it.

Widening my windows of tolerance for those that disagree, both personal and political, is one of my aspirations for 2021.

Will you join me? Share below one window of tolerance you hope to widen.

And if you’d like some one-on-one guidance or a partner along the way, shoot me an email by clicking here.

To more open windows!

Photo by Amal George on Unsplash


  1. Adam Davis

    I have complex PTSD from service in Afghanistan and numerous violent bereavements. I have had therapy since winter 2019, but this morning I had an epiphany about my tolerance to certain triggers at home. I decided to Google this and it led me to your work. I honestly believe that this may help save my marriage and I can’t thank you enough and even if it doesn’t, I will have done valuable work on myself. Thank you again. Adam.

    • Jen

      Adam, thank you so much for sharing your experience. I’m SO happy to hear this. You deserve all the support you can get. I am rooting for you. Thanks again – you just made my day 🙂


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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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