Last spring, my cat alerted me to two baby bunnies stuck in our window well. My cat's instinct to hunt was the only reason I knew that the bunnies needed rescuing. Her reaction, incessantly meowing loudly while scratching at the window, was like an alarm, alerting me to a problem I was able to fix.
Our own instinctive reactions to stimuli also serve as an alarm bell.
My husband calls such reactions my zero to sixty because we'll be having a fine time, then suddenly we are not. Often something is said or done and I am no longer calm, composed or pleasant. Instead, my tone of voice becomes aggressive, I'm speaking loudly and quickly, and I'm prone to argue.
In these instances, I am having a patterned reaction to a perceived threat. Often it is something that might seem innocuous like my husband asserting, "You just don't care about the counter being messy." But since such statements feel loaded, I'm prone to entering a protective stance.
We gain control over our lives when we bring our awareness to such instinctive reactions.
While our initial reaction to the alarm bells going off might be counter-productive. The fact that the alarm's ringing means something. It could simply signal you care. Or it might mean the stimuli feels similar to a past experience that was traumatic and your brain is following its programming to preserve and protect you.
Either way, reacting strongly means something. You just have to figure out what! Doing so enables you to regain control of your life and how you’re showing up.
The first step is to pay attention to your cat-like instincts - aka simply notice when you’re triggered.
The fact is, we ignore the vast majority of stimuli and information we encounter over a given day. Our brains would not be able to handle it if we consciously gave attention to every little detail. So we filter a very selective amount of stimuli and information into our conscious minds. This is part of the role of the Reticular Activating System (RAS) located in the brain stem.
The RAS stimulates our conscious awareness of different input or triggers. You might have experienced this after buying a new car. Say you recently bought a Toyota Rav 4. Suddenly everywhere you look you see people driving the same car you bought.
It's not like everyone also went out and bought the car the same day as you. But, these cars had been on the road before, you just didn't notice them because the RAS filtered them out as unimportant information.
So, if you're going to start bringing your awareness to moments when you're triggered, it helps to know what to look for.
When we are triggered, we experience a physiological reaction due to the release of different stress hormones. Some of the physical sensations one might experience include a racing heart, shortness of breath, sweating palms, heat rising or redness, a sinking feeling, constriction or tightness, and an inability to think clearly.
Those are all signs the sympathetic nervous system is dominant. When we enter a triggered threat response, fight, flight, freeze or appease, the parasympathetic branch of the automatic nervous system is more dominant than its counterpart.
The autonomic nervous system manages those functions our body does without us having to think about it. The parasympathetic nervous system causes your pupils to dilate, speeds up your heart rate and slows down your digestion (among other things). Whereas your parasympathetic nervous system causes your pupils to constrict, slows down your heart rate and speeds up your digestion.
My friend told me a story a few months ago that perfectly illustrates these different branches. She was doing research in the Alaskan wilderness when her colleague went into the woods to relieve himself. He pulled his pants down, squatted and had began doing number 2 when he noticed a grizzly bear. His parasympathetic nervous system kicked into gear and sucked things back up into his colon. This was a good thing at the time, as he was now free to navigate a very real and present danger!
Now you can see how there are times where it's helpful for the sympathetic nervous system to dominate your bodily functions. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the times we experience triggers we aren't actually facing a real and present danger to our life. Not only is engaging the sympathetic nervous system and following a patterned threat response unhelpful, it's usually counterproductive.
I was recently working with a client who was triggered by a work assignment she was given. It didn't fall into her area of responsibility, yet the executive team didn't trust her colleague to successfully oversee this project.
She had already cultivated a deep level of awareness around her triggers. Her patterned reaction to this situation was to put it off, AKA freeze.
This deep level of awareness helped her to figure out how to navigate the situation with intention. She listened to the fact she was triggered without following a patterned threat response.
The alarm bells indicated she was in the midst of rocky terrain. She was aware of the importance of maintaining a positive working relationship with her colleague while also ensuring the project was successful. To do so, she approached her colleague with both compassion and boundaries. She honored the value and importance of her colleague's contributions while establishing shared expectations for timelines and deliverables. As a result, the project was successfully launched.
Like the situation with my cat, the alarm was valuable to heed but her initial instincts were not going to solve the problem. In order to find a solution, she needed to reengage her parasympathetic nervous system, get centered and use her whole brain.
I'd love to hear from you! What alarms have been going off in your life lately?