We all get triggered, and deal with it in different ways. Some of us become aggressive and raise our voices , some of us shut down and check out, some of us run for the hills and some of us do whatever we can to please the other and sell ourselves out in the process. If we want to maintain quality relationships with certain people that trigger us, whether it be co-workers, family members, or friends, learning to calm our nervous system is key. We often try to work it out by playing the dialogue out in our heads, and this just makes it worse. If the body has worked itself into a state of threat, it’s going to take something physical to shift it out of that state, which is why these three simple practices involve the physical body. I learned these from a podcast interview with Andrew Huberman, who runs a lab at Stanford, applying all we know about the neurobiology of the human animal to everyday situations to see the result.
Just a caveat before we dive in — if the person you’re interacting with is actually threatening your physical safety, these practices do not apply, and it’s important you get yourself to safety.
What does it mean to “get triggered?”
Getting triggered is a physiological response to a perceived threat in an interpersonal situation. This can mean something as mild as getting disassociated, where you go somewhere else in your head, or it can be as extreme as a panic attack. We perceive the threat, and then our biology goes into what it’s wired to do, which is to maintain safety. We humans are social animals and if we perceive another is compromising our emotional safety, it hooks up with the same wiring as something that’s threatening our physical safety.
Why we can’t mentalize our triggering.
It’s incredibly hard to shift yourself out of triggering mentally, in fact it’s almost impossible. There are 10x as many neurocircuits coming up from the body than down from the brain, and no matter how much we think and tell ourselves there isn’t a threat, it doesnt change the physiological response.
In order to change our physiological response, we have to do something…well… physical. Here are three scientifically proven practices to calm down your nervous system.
Practice 1: Breath
You often hear people say, just take a deep breath, when someone is not calm, and you might have tried this yourself and noticed that it doesn’t always work. The reason it doesn’t work is that it’s not the long deep inhale that calms the nervous system, but the exhale, which is often overlooked.
Now, this is something you probably don’t want to do in front of most people, but the trick is to take two rapid inhales, then one long sigh or exhale. It’s the long sigh or exhale, that tells your nervous system you are not in a calamitous situation. If you were actually in a threatening situation, you wouldn’t be able to do this breath, so it’s kind of hacking your nervous system.
This brings you into a downregulated state, which is much more conducive to being able to converse, collaborate, empathize, and not see the other person as a threat — all prerequisites for functional relating.
Practice 2: Look up, or out.
The eyes are a fascinating part of the human body because they are actually an exterior part of the brain and are therefore extremely related to how we experience reality. Given that the brain is the seat of the nervous system and determines our state of being, the eyes actually affect our state of arousal.
When you’re triggered, your eyes narrow focus and create a feedback loop. You start signalling your nervous system that the other is a threat, and the situation is threatening and this leads your nervous system to upregulate into a survival state.
One simple thing that can be done in conversation, is to look up and widen your eyes. Anywhere you can glance that shifts your eyes out of their narrow focus will help calm you down. If you stay in a narrow focus, this will keep signalling to your nervous system that something threatening is happening and it will continue ramping up.
Practice 3: Walk or simply Move
When we walk, our eyes are spacious, our breath takes on a natural rhythm, and scenery is moving slowly past us. This signals to our nervous system that all is well because if we’re able to do this, it inherently means we’re not under threat.
The caveat to this, is that walking is a baseline to keep your arousal level low. Actually using your eyes to focus on the detail of your surroundings and notice the shape of a car, or the color of a flower, or the crack in a sidewalk helps you take your attention away from the extreme fixation you had on the other, and the perceived threatening behavior they were exhibiting.
Struggling with getting triggered in your partnership? Schedule a free consultation call and let’s see if I can help.