In a previous article I suggested that there are two ways we can approach our penchant for reactivity when we are triggered. One seeks to address why it is that we are triggered in the first place, the more deep and long term solution. The other focuses on the moment that we are triggered, and seeks to restore short term balance. It is really the symptomatic response-the band aid-that helps the person in conflict calm down, and release the primal grip of the amygdala so that the cortex can come into play. This article focuses on techniques for calming down.
The range of these techniques is informed by our understanding of the physiology and neurobiology of stress and relaxation. When a man or a woman is triggered and experiences stress the sympathetic autonomic nervous system is activated and with it a series of typical physiological reactions: dilation of pupils, inhibition of salivation, constriction of blood vessels, acceleration of heart beat, relaxation of airways and inhibition of indigestion. Our bodies prepare for fight or flight. More recent studies of woman under stress have led to an appreciation of gender differences in the stress response and how women will also exhibit ‘tend’ and ‘befriend’ behaviors.
The autonomic nervous system predates the development of the cortex and is essentially driven by the constellation of inner brain structures referred to as the limbic brain, most importantly the amygdala. From a neurological point of view the danger is that when we are triggered and experience a stressful event, our cortex with its capacity for social restraint, alternative analysis and conscious choice is compromised, and we are literally hijacked by the amygdala. We become stuck in a stressful emotional reaction.
An awareness of the early signs of being triggered is vital to being able to calm down before we are swept away by strong emotions. Ideally we are able to self monitor ourselves, but it is not unusual for friends and partners to provide that vital feedback-“you are going red in the face and your lips are tight”; “you are pale and look like you saw a ghost” or even “I notice tears welling up.” Amazingly the person experiencing any of these three physical reactions may be unaware of their anger, fear or sadness at a conscious level.
Assuming that we do gain conscious insight to our physical reaction-whether through self monitoring or through third party feedback, what are techniques that we can employ to calm down?
Of all the techniques, probably the most powerful is our capacity for conscious breathing. When we pay attention to our breathing we can shift our physiological reaction and start to calm down.
Breathing is powerful for a number of reasons. Firstly, we can only breathe in the present. So, when we focus on our breathing our capacity to project to the future (as we do in fear) or to the past (as we do with anger) is limited. Secondly, our inhalations stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, and our exhalations stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system. The latter is referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ response. For the most part it produces the opposite physiological reactions to the sympathetic nervous system. So when we breathe deeply into our diaphragm, and make our exhalation longer than our inhalation, we are in affect shifting the balance toward the parasympathetic and a more relaxed state. A third benefit of deep (diaphragmatic or abdomen breathing) rather than shallow (chest) breathing is the amount of oxygen we inhale. When the brain is well oxygenated it functions better. In addition, chest breathing creates shorter, more restless brain waves, while abdominal breathing creates longer, slower brain waves. Longer and slower brain waves are similar to the ones your brain makes when you are relaxed and calm.
People employ a variety of breathing practices to achieve this. Some count their breaths; others focus on their breathing in a manner that ensures that breathing is a continuous loop, while others focus on the movement of their bellies in and out with each deep and purposeful breath.
More than anything, our capacity to focus the attention of our mind on something enables us employ a range of techniques that do not require physical exertion. Mental visualization is an example It is a powerful tool that can easily be demonstrated using biofeedback devises that track your heart rate. If at the point you become aware that you have been triggered you imagine a scene in which you feel comfortable, content and at peace your heart rate will drop and you will relax. Your body is reacting to the imagined scenes as if they were real, rather than to the situation that triggered you. The more vivid detail you focus on the better. It helps to identify the scene you plan to use in advance of being triggered. Examples include a tropical beach, a favorite childhood spot, or a quiet wooded glen.
Meditation is another useful calming technique that relies on the power of our mind to focus attention. Numerous scientific studies have established the power of mediation to relax the body and reduce the impact of stress. To meditate, sit in a comfortable place, close your eyes, relax your body, and focus your attention on something for a period of time. A limitation is that it is difficult to employ ‘in the heat of the moment.’ However, it has great utility during breaks-even as short as 5 minutes, and certainly at the end of the day.
Both mental visualization and meditation could also be described as distraction techniques. In effect you are distracting your attention from that which is causing the stress reaction to something that has the opposite effect. However, it is also helpful to think of the power of distraction all on its own. When a mother waves a teddy bear in front of her crying baby she is a distracting technique. When a police officer asks an angry citizen to remember the factual details of what happened, he or she is using a distracting technique. When you try and count back in multiples of 23 from 1 000 345 678 the next time you are angry you are using a distracting technique.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Other calming techniques rely on some form of physical exertion. This makes sense when we consider that the fight and flight response is preparing us for some form of physical action. One of the challenges, especially in the modern office environment, is that our opportunity for exercise while we are being triggered is limited. Often we are in meetings, on the telephone, or behind a counter.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves the systematic tensing and relaxing of muscle groups This technique is easy to do, even if you are behind a desk or on the phone. Importantly, it can help you calm down by relaxing the major muscle groups in your body.
Next time someone pushes your buttons in a meeting try tensing and relaxing your feet –one at a time, then your legs-one at a time, then your hands-one at a time. Just that will help. For a full ‘treatment’ you would ideally begin with your facial muscles and work down through the shoulders, arms, chest, legs and feet.
Any exercise that you can do, at the time of, or soon after you have been triggered will help. This can be achieved by requesting a break-and then using it to take a walk or doing a few press ups in your office. Sometimes you can invite the person you are having the difficult conversation with to take a walk. Not only will the exercise help you, but also them!
We are all triggered from time to time. Unless we are aware that we are being triggered there is not a lot we can do. Fortunately there are a range of techniques available to us to help us calm down and regain our centered, balanced state. Practicing our technique of choice will go a long way to help out in the most difficult of circumstances.