Use the Trigger Reaction Loop to reclaim your power
I hadn't even been at this networking event 20 minutes before I was triggered.
It was a reunion with a peer group I belonged to a few years before. We were sitting in a circle catching up when I shared something I had recently read. What I said clearly struck a nerve for the group leader. Her demeanor changed as she reacted strongly to my words. Her tone of voice became heated and she went on a rant. I felt immense shame from her reaction.
I sank in my chair. My heart started racing, my shoulders stiffened and my jaw clenched. I felt flushed and breathless like I had been sucker-punched.
After I became triggered, I kept my mouth shut and eyed the door imagining my great escape. I was no longer present in the conversation. Instead, I had a slew of negative thoughts playing on repeat in my mind.
"Why do I always say the wrong thing? Why can't I ever be cool enough for this crowd? Why doesn't she like me?"
After the formal programming came to a conclusion, I excused myself. Instead of leaving, I gave myself permission to go to the bathroom to reset. I kept slinging insults at myself as I opened the bathroom door.
I stood there breathing deeply and reconnecting with my body. After a minute, another thought entered my mind, "What if I don't like her? I definitely don't like the way she just reacted to my share! And I know her reaction was more about her than me, so what if I stopped taking it so personally?"
I felt the tension in my body release as I reclaimed my power by interrupting, then redirecting my patterned-threat reaction to the trigger (read on for more about that below). I was ready to re-join my peers.
Much to my surprise, a colleague waved me over. She wanted to hear what I was working on. I shared about my recent certification in Conversational Intelligence and told a story highlighting the power of applying the latest research on neuroscience to help leaders and teams level up.
Upon hearing about my work she enthusiastically recruited me for a speaking opportunity.
I never would have received that opportunity had I followed my patterned threat reaction to flee. What’s more, had I run away, the whole experience would have reinforced the negative thoughts I had about myself.
I know this because I had been stuck in this loop for a while before. It was a Trigger Reaction Loop that began as a way to preserve my sense of safety as a child. My childhood best friend repeatedly bullied me. Running away was how I survived because standing up to her only resulted in more severe lashings in front of the other kids.
The shame I experienced when the group leader reacted strongly to my share felt similar to those times on the playground growing up. The feelings, caused by the flood of stress hormones released in my brain, led to negative thoughts about myself. Uninterrupted, those thoughts reinforced my patterned reaction to flee for most of my life. As a result of this patterned threat reaction, I only allowed myself to see confirming evidence which reinforced the loop to continue.
Luckily, I was able to redirect my patterned threat reaction in the moment by repeatedly taking intentional steps to rewire my neural pathways.
We all possess this ability. It is one of the gifts of our shared humanity. Our patterned threat reactions (fight, flee, freeze or appease) are managed by the autonomic nervous system in the lizard brain. While they literally happen automatically, we have the power to interrupt the patterned reaction by engaging our executive and heart brains.
I call this work repatterning, where we take a limiting trigger threat reaction and rewrite it into an empowering practice. I have successfully guided clients through this work for five years now. They come to me stuck in a loop where they feel like they are repeatedly losing control in certain types of situations that are limiting their success. Despite knowing better, they cannot do better!
I take them through the same Pattern Rewrite Process I did for myself. The Pattern Rewrite Process includes four steps:
Awareness - Deepening our awareness of the stimuli, feelings, thoughts, and patterned threat reaction by simply noticing our experiences as though we are an observer of our own lives.
Deconstruction - Deconstructing a pattern involves reflecting both on the circumstances in the present moment that led to a triggered threat response as well as past experiences. The limbic section of the brain stores our deep memories and is constantly scanning your environment for situations that evoke similar sensations to threats you experienced in the past.
Interruption - A pattern interrupt momentarily shifts your response away from the preprogrammed stimuli-reaction. Sometimes the simple act of practicing awareness or deconstruction can interrupt the pattern. Other times a more concerted effort is needed to interrupt the pattern.
Redirection - Unhealthy patterns follow a Trigger Reaction Loop that leads to a negative place with the primitive brain running the show. While interrupting the pattern is helpful, the pattern is rewritten when a new and empowering habit is established where the stimuli leads to the engagement of the executive and heart brains. There is a common saying, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” To fully redirect a pattern, you must identify the pattern interrupt that’s most effective for shifting into your executive brain, then practice. Repetition is essential and the most effective practice happens both in advance of experiencing a trigger as well as in the moment.
The Trigger Reaction Loop
The first step in doing this work is to deepen your awareness by acknowledging a Trigger Reaction Loop you feel stuck in. The Trigger Reaction Loop is a tool I created to help bring your awareness to the cause and effect at play. At its simplest, the components of the loop include the stimuli, thoughts, and behaviors.
The stimuli is the trigger. In the story I shared above, the leader’s strong reaction to my share triggered my patterned threat reaction. The thoughts are the stories we tell ourselves in reaction to the trigger. I had been overwhelmed by thoughts of “why me.” And the behavior is one of four patterned threat responses - fight, flight, flee or appease. My typical reaction in situations like that before had been to run away.
When coaching clients through this work I will often say, building awareness in retrospect helps us be more aware in the moment. When we reflect on those instances where we lost our cool or didn’t show up the way we intended or ran away or froze or agreed to someone’s idea when every fiber in our being wants to scream ‘no’ - we invite those moments into our consciousness moving forward.
I became more aware of my thoughts in triggering situations through writing in my journal. I let my thoughts flow freely onto the page as I recalled situation after situation. Seeing my thoughts in ink felt uncomfortable. I never would speak to a friend the way I talked to myself. This newfound awareness had two benefits - 1) it sparked a desire for change from within me and 2) I knew what thoughts and feelings to look for in the moment.
I used a combination of stream of consciousness writing and drawing the Trigger Reaction Loop in my journals to deepen my understanding of the circumstances I felt stuck in. Using both techniques together helped me turn pages and pages of reflective writing into a simple, easy-to-reference diagram. I used the Trigger Reaction Loop to identify experiments and track my progress, which has been a valuable tool for self-accountability.
Judith E. Glaser called this, “making the invisible, visible.”