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Kathy Whelan

Posted on August 28, 2023

You know them and we all have them, those environmental cues that cause us to react before we have a chance to think. Almost anything can push our buttons: the mere sight of a person or object, a tone of voice, a physical sensation, a word, a situation, a memory, a noise.

These triggers fire up our stress reaction, the physiological fight-or-flight mechanism nature gave us to keep us safe from perceived danger. Sometimes this is helpful, even lifesaving; other times it’s anything but. When we react to stress triggers by engaging in harmful behaviors – lashing out in anger, eating or drinking too much, ruminating pointlessly on the past, worrying obsessively about a future that may never happen, or trying to suppress stress – we do ourselves no favors. In those cases, we might want to take a closer look at what’s going on.

Understanding the anatomy of the stress reaction can be enlightening. It has several parts: a trigger, reactivity, mind storms, reactive harmful behaviors, and harmful consequences. Say you have something important coming up at work. Eyeing your calendar (trigger), you become fearful (reactivity). Thoughts about being inadequately prepared swirl around in your head (mind storm). You reach for an unhealthy snack (reactive behavior) to calm yourself. It's rewarding in the moment, so you repeat this behavior in various situations until it becomes what Judson Brewer, MD, PhD calls a “habit loop” that plays out automatically with little or no thought. In time, your snacking derails your plan for a healthier diet (harmful consequence).

I’ve been there, at least briefly. Ages ago, triggered by fear of my upcoming bar exam, I reacted by eating a 2-pound bag of Peanut M&Ms in a day. Each bite must have felt good in the moment but, no surprise, I took the exam with an upset stomach and an embarrassing facial rash. And then there was the cheesecake night.

What if, instead of inflicting overt harm on ourselves, we react by pushing our feelings aside? Or stewing on them? Both “bottling” and “brooding” behaviors, as Susan David, PhD calls them, are counterproductive when used regularly. The feelings are still there and will come out eventually.

Fortunately, we can disarm our stress triggers by trading our automatic reactions for thoughtful responses. Familiarizing ourselves with our stress triggers and habitual reactions will help us begin doing this. In the past, what stimuli have set you off? What emotion were you feeling then? And what was your reaction? Consider whether your reaction served you well. Was that unhealthy snack really a good idea? Was exploding verbally on your mother-in-law or your boss rewarding after the initial sense of relief? Did brooding actually make you feel better? Be as objective as possible, not shaming yourself but learning from the past with self-compassion.

Having done that, practice noticing the very moment you become triggered. Become aware of your body’s reaction. Then pause and take some slow, deep breaths, which will bring calming chemicals into the bloodstream to counteract the stress hormones that are already there.

This calmer state creates new mental space that allows for clearer thinking. And this presents a golden opportunity, a “moment of choice.” Instead of reacting automatically, you can choose a wiser, more thoughtful response.

If it seems helpful and the circumstances permit, allow yourself some time before responding by taking a walk, writing out your thoughts or doing something else to prolong that more relaxed state even if it’s just while you count to ten. Doing or saying nothing may be the wisest response. In any case, by interrupting your automatic stress reaction, you make possible beneficial consequences instead of harmful ones.

Meditation can help develop the present moment awareness – the mindfulness – that allows us to see our stress triggers in real time, and today’s many meditation apps make it easier than ever to begin. But whether or not we meditate formally, daily life is full of opportunities to cultivate mindfulness by simply paying attention to what we’re doing when we’re doing it: walking, eating, driving, showering or anything else. Whatever form it takes, mindfulness requires practice. As we become more mindful through practice, we will become more adept at taming our triggers.

Stress is part of life that neither can nor should be avoided altogether. But when stress becomes chronic, it is unhealthy. By becoming familiar with our personal stress triggers and learning how to respond to them, we take control of what we can. Our health will benefit, we will gain confidence, and we will live with fewer regrets.

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