Learning to Handle Triggers before They Get the Better of You ...

It happens to all of us; irrespective of temperament, personality type, whether an introvert or an extrovert, all of us occasionally lose our temper… with potentially explosive results.

When triggered, do you react or respond?

While triggers are a normal human process and hard to avoid, you should take time to learn how to recognise and respond to them before they become an outburst.

The difference between a reaction and a response is that while the first is automated, prompted solely by emotion, the latter is a conscious action to the situation or emotions at hand.

What causes your triggers to manifest?

Work and personal situations are typically easier to handle when circumstances, be they environmental or otherwise external, are to our benefit. However, either a series of small negative triggers in quick succession or a major trigger causes us to reach a breaking point. Or, you may be under stress about a situation and a small trigger that normally wouldn’t bother you sends you over the edge. Maybe it’s the rainy day when you find out your umbrella is broken, or when your car is running on fumes but the gas station you’ve reached is cash only, and all you have are credit cards.

Examples like these are typical human triggers which, when isolated, usually remain manageable. If minor instances like these set you off, it could be you need to better manage your triggers going forward.

But that’s a different issue. Today, we want to look at how stress triggers work – and some methods of dealing with them.

Do you know your triggers’ lifecycles?

The first tool to handle your triggers better is to identify their lifecycles. Everyone has a lifecycle when it comes to their triggers and, humans being creatures of habit, there will always be a pattern to them. The first step to tame your temper is to discover it.

Here is an easy exercise to find a trigger’s lifecycle:

  • Take a recent example where you felt you did not behave or respond to a situation as you wish you had,
  • Make a list of all the instigating incidents – in no particular order – which you feel led to that last manifested trigger. It could be things that people said or did, even if not all of them were related, that led to you losing your cool. This list of incidents are triggers that remained contained (i.e., you don’t act them), consciously or unconsciously.
  • Unconscious triggers are usually the first to appear and, being unconscious, we can often track them back with hindsight.
  • Conscious triggers are the ones we feel but then suppress. Different people feel them in different ways. It might have felt like a weight or fluttering in your stomach – or maybe your body became heavy or stiff, or words rushed through your head but you swallowed them down.
  • Once you have done that, take all the instigating incidents and list them in chronological order. Start looking to see which one was the first unconscious trigger, then which was the first conscious trigger. Finally, mark which incident caused you to lash out.

How can knowing your trigger’s lifecycle help you?

Identifying your trigger’s lifecycle is in the counting. Our experience finds that most people begin feeling the effects of their first trigger (that is, feeling their temper is rising) around the third or fourth incident on their list. Depending on their patience or temper, boiling over occurs somewhere between the third and sixth incident.

Some people are a faster-burn; some people bottle it up – but it’s rarely long after a sixth trigger that people react. This is when a person generally loses their cool, through a temper tantrum, physical action, such as throwing that broken umbrella, or something else.

For a more accurate estimation of your trigger’s lifecycle, we encourage you to repeat the above process two or three more times using other examples, finding the average number between the contained response and the manifested reaction.

Don’t take your average numbers the wrong way; they aren’t bad, per se. The purpose of this exercise is to find your personal trigger stages. Once you have identified them, you are more aware of the process that will make you lose your temper – and provide a better method to maintain professional behaviour.

Based on your average, if you normally start feeling anger building at trigger number three, as soon as you feel that internal trigger, backtrack to the unconscious triggers so far. This should only take a few moments and allow you to work out if there have been three triggers so far. This is your internal alarm to step away from the triggering situation before it gets out of control; since most people will need only another 1-3 more triggers before boiling over with an emotional reaction.

That first conscious trigger and the retroactive counting is your Red Alert phase: it’s the point you recognise the fire is rising and it is time to take stock. Now is not the time to blame other people or the situation at hand.

Now is the time to work out a way to diffuse your anger before it explodes. This is the moment you need to pull back and investigate the environment you are in. Maybe the environment can be made more conducive by moving to an area you feel safer or more in control; maybe a second opinion would be helpful.

But in case you can’t change the situation you are in, then STOP. Nothing constructive can come of it continuing. Postpone the meeting, back away from the conversation. Come back to it later once you have reappraised the situation and strategised a way of receiving the bad news or stressful triggers on your own terms.


Learning to deal with our triggers is not only an important part of understanding ourselves but also how to work with other people within a professional work environment. Every one of us has a temper and a breaking point– the trick is heading off  that temper before you act inappropriately with the repercussions that will follow. We may not be in control of triggers but we certainly can have control over how we respond (versus react) to them.