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Conflict Basics 2: What is Triggering?

This is the second installment in a series of posts on developing workplace conflict skills. The first post opened with why it is important to focus on “your own boat” when conflicts arise. In this post, we’ll look at what happens to our ability to think and act when something triggers our instinctual responses.

Suppose you are walking down an unlighted path at dusk and you spot a snake coiled a few feet away from you. If your brain is working properly, before you even have time to register what your eyes are seeing you will likely have jumped back several feet to take yourself out of danger. Then you turn on your flashlight to discover that what you thought was a snake is actually a coil of rope and you feel a little foolish for overreacting. Only it was not an overreaction, it was your brain doing exactly what it’s supposed to do to keep you alive. What made you jump was your amygdala.

Deep in our brain are two small structures (one in each hemisphere), that are marvels of evolutionary engineering. The amygdala, from the Greek word for almond, are almond-shaped clusters of neurons that are responsible for our fight, flight or freeze response. It is highly unlikely that the human race would be here today were it not for the quick responsiveness of the amygdala which allowed us to fight, run from, or freeze, in the presence of lethal threats during our prehistoric past.

We’ll come back to the amygdala in a minute; first, let’s look at the prefrontal cortex or PFC. The PFC is the area of the brain associated with complex cognitive behavior such as planning, analyzing and synthesizing information, personality expression, and moderating social behavior. Collectively, these brain processes are referred to as “executive functions”, and as you read about them, imagine the kind of havoc that would be created if you were on a team where the leader or someone else lost access to these functions. According to Wikipedia:

“Executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social "control" (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes).”

Even though our brain processes incoming signals and information in thousandths of a second, it takes a relatively long time for sensory data from our eyes, nose, ears, and skin to pass through the brain and be processed by the prefrontal cortex into information that tells us whether we are safe or at risk of attack and signal our nervous systems to take appropriate action. Back when we shared our world with dangerous creatures such as saber tooth tigers and rampaging mastodons, we could ill afford to wait for our PFC to take in the visual, olfactory and/or auditory signals, assemble them into a recognizable pattern, and then call up past memories of such encounters before deciding that we needed to get the hell out of there. Every millisecond devoted to processing sensory data increased the risk of losing our lives. Nature’s answer was the amygdala. The amygdala acts as a sort of trap door between the PFC and the brainstem. The brainstem is the deepest most instinctual part of our brain. It controls the autonomic nervous system which handles things like keeping our hearts beating and our lungs breathing, as well as performing the functions required for us to maintain homeostasis. If the amygdala detects a threat, the PFC is short-circuited and for all intents and purposes, our executive functioning is knocked offline for a period of time while we cope with whatever the threat might be.

Here’s Daniel Goleman explaining what happens in the brain when our amygdala is triggered:

“The amygdala is the trigger point for the fight, flight, or freeze response. When these circuits perceive a threat, they flood the body with stress hormones that do several things to prepare us for an emergency. Blood shunts away from the organs to the limbs; that’s the fight or flee. But the response is also cognitive—and, in modern life, this is what matters most, it makes some shifts in how the mind functions. Attention tends to fixate on the thing that is bothering us, that’s stressing us, that we’re worried about, that’s upsetting, frustrating, or angering us. That means that we don’t have as much attentional capacity left for whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing or want to be doing. In addition, our memory reshuffles its hierarchy so that what’s most relevant to the perceived threat is what comes to mind most easily—and what’s deemed irrelevant is harder to bring to mind. That, again, makes it more difficult to get things done than we might want. Plus, we tend to fall back on over-learned responses, which are responses learned early in life—which can lead us to do or say things that we regret later. It is important to understand that the impulses that come to us when we’re under stress—particularly if we get hijacked by it—are likely to lead us astray.” (emphasis added)

As Goleman notes, when we get triggered, it involves both instinctual and learned or conditioned responses to stressors. When someone triggers our amygdala, we might be led astray and respond in ways that are harmful to ourselves and our colleagues. For most of us, the harm is rarely physical instead, our instinctual responses tend to cause injury to our ability to inspire trust and confidence in others. Such triggering need not be a full-blown amygdala hijack, other symptoms include constant irritability, having a short-temper, deep cynicism and signs of resignation and resentment. All take a toll on the ability of a team to focus and function well.

A common prescription for dealing with triggers these days is learning to still the mind through mindfulness practices such as meditation. Many people report significant progress with this approach. The downside of mindfulness is that it can take months or even years of practice before we see any tangible results, and not all of us have the patience to sit still and watch our breath while we wait for the benefits of mindfulness to accumulate. I began my meditation practice in 1987 and I think it took me at least five years before I was able to develop enough non-attachment for it to make a real impact on emotionally difficult situations.

So, are we really consigned to the long slow path of mindfulness to help us get a handle on our reactivity? Fortunately, there’s a way to work with triggers that can produce results in a few hours rather than a few months. It’s an extension of mindfulness that we might call “bodyfulness.”

Bodyfulness involves tuning into the signals and states that are going on in our body all the time. By paying closer attention to our bodies we can detect the early warning signs of trouble and develop strategies for decreasing the chances of getting triggered. Bodyfulness can even help us to recover faster when we do get triggered.

Bodyfulness will be the subject of my next post.

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