How to Improve Stress Triggers

May 18, 2024 | Stress

Stress triggers

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

Triggers can happen all around us, each day, throughout the day.

And maybe it’s just me, but it seems like we have increasingly strong triggers for stress, which also shows up as a shrinking tolerance for discomfort.

This isn’t good for our brains, performance, wellbeing, or our relationships.

But since we often can’t control the causes of our stress, what can we do?

We can improve our stress awareness, and learn tools for improving our stress tolerance.

Triggers as threats to the brain

The brain is always trying to keep us safe – closer to comfort and further from pain.

A trigger is something that sends a quick signal to the brain that we aren’t safe – emotional or physical safety.

One frequent way we get triggered is when a value of ours gets stepped on. We see or hear something that goes against what we believe, what we value, or even against our identity. For example, hearing something that goes against your religious or political beliefs – a frequent trigger these days.

Or it might be based on prior emotional experiences. For instance, one of my long-held triggers is disrespect. If I feel someone is being disrespectful, alarm signals go off in my brain, and I move to reactive mode.

Because when the brain perceives threat, it activates the fight-flight-freeze response in the limbic brain. At the same time, it disconnects from the prefrontal cortex which gives us self-regulation, self-awareness and higher cognitive capacities.

Often, our triggers also have strong neural patterns because we’ve reacted to them in the same way over time. Each time we react, the patterns get deeper.

But following that habitual reaction does not serve well over time. In fact, it strengthens the neural connections for reactivity, which essentially lowers my window of tolerance for that trigger.

So what can we do?

Tolerating stress triggers

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

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

3 tips to improve stress triggers

  1. Awareness of 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 identifying our triggers in advance. No need for judging them; just get curious, and even make a list.
  2. Top-down regulation. This is when we can change our thinking or mindset about a situation causing us stress. For instance, can we switch to humor, or compassion? Both will take you out of the limbic brain. You might consider another person’s point of view, or a future perspective (e.g., yourself in 6 months looking back on it). All of these are cognitive shifts that engage the cortex (top of the brain).
  3. Bottom-up regulation. Sometimes cognitive or top-down control isn’t available – especially with strong triggers. That’s when you can reverse-engineer regulation, using the body and breath to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which calms our response. For instance, take deep breaths through the nose, and longer exhales. Humning causes a gentle vibration in the vocal cords that stimulates the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic response. Or relaxing and grounding the body also signals to the brain that you are not in fight-flight-freeze.

Tolerance creates change

To create change, we must start with ourselves. We must improve our ability to listen and tolerate our own discomfort.

When people feel heard and understood, they can feel safe. Their sympathetic nervous systems can relax, and only then can people be listen, truly communicate, and be open to change.

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

Photo by ahmad gunnaivi on Unsplash

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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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