Unraveling Emotional Triggers

I was talking with a group of managers at a recent seminar I was facilitating, when in the middle of a discussion about applying emotional intelligence and neuroscience to management and coaching, one of the managers asked, How do I communicate with someone who is irrational?”

The question triggered the topic of this post. I asked myself, how would I use neuroscience and emotional intelligence to coach this person and address his question? I assumed by his facial expressions, tone of voice and body language that he was emotionally triggered and that’s my logical starting point.                        

So, first, let’s take a brief look at emotions through the lens of neuroscience. While it’s common to categorize emotions as positive or negative, I prefer to think of emotions as either having positive or negative consequences. Which is not the same thing as saying that we use our emotions to discern that something is positive or negative. A slight semantic difference perhaps, but a significant difference in how it can help us learn more about ourselves, lead to more choices and a more satisfying life.

Since we cannot separate our sense of self from our emotional life, every emotion we experience is a representation of a part of ourselves. There is, however, a tendency to avoid or deny emotions that we have identified as negative. In doing so, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn more about ourselves. In other words, every emotion can have a positive function, because every emotion conveys information about our experience.

Using the language of neuroscience we  can create a new frame of reference to connect brain activity with behavioral change. And unlike the “baggage” that some coaches may feel is too therapeutic or inappropriate for their practice, sharing the language of neuroscience explains the dynamic process that is taking place in the brain.

According to neuroscientist Louis Cozolino, “Emotions are our conscious experiences and interpretations of our bodily states, involving many of the brain’s neural networks. Because our thoughts and emotions are so interconnected, it is difficult to know if they are distinct from one another or really different aspects of the same neural processes.”

For example, the seminar participant I mentioned earlier who held the belief that his colleague was irrational would learn that the annoyance and frustration he was experiencing was related to the activation of his limbic system.  When activated the limbic system diverts “resources” from the part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) involved in logical, rational, evaluative and decision-making activities – resulting in less clarity and the increased possibility of impulsive behavior.

It’s valuable for this manager to understand that when he is emotionally triggered, he’s far less likely to do his best problem-solving. Looking for external solutions shouldn’t be his starting point, understanding the source of his emotional trigger should be. Understanding this process gives us  a new frame and language for managing emotions.

3 Ways to Help Make the Switch                                      

Without oversimplifying what is after all a dynamic and sometimes complex process, there are three key ways to support someone to move from “limbic arousal” to using cognitive strategies.

  1.  Regulate Your Breathing.  Because there are always bodily, or physiological responses associated with emotional states, activated by the insula – which senses our bodily states and informs us about how we’re feeling – the first step in switching should involve our paying close attention to our bodies.  When the limbic system is activated the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, are released. Before we can evaluate our emotional states cognitively and engage our “thinking” brain (prefrontal cortex), we need to reduce these bodily responses. Focusing attention on the breath is the portal to begin the switching action.

In NLP (neuro linguistic programming) it’s thought that when you  “change physiology, you change internal state”. In other words, focusing on the breath (physiology) creates a pathway to changing our internal state (how and what we’re thinking). One of the key brain regions involved in this process is the anterior cingulate that is responsible for managing impulse control.

Our goal is to help our triggered manager to regulate his breathing so that his anterior cingulate gets activated, along with other brain regions associated with emotions,(i.e. ventralmedial cortex) to  increase his ability to express his feelings and thoughts more effectively and respond differently to his “irrational” co-worker.

        2. Activate Self-Awareness.  Achieving emotional equilibrium by shifting from the limbic region to the prefrontal cortex requires self-awareness and the realization of what’s going on emotionally. We need to know that we’re in the “grips” of a limbic response. Unless we are able to recognize when we are emotionally triggered and take steps to deactivate our reactive state, we can’t effectively address our problems.

Working with past information about our experience and patterns that are similar to what is triggering us in the moment can help to unravel what’s stuck emotionally. Emotional triggers can be neural habits that contain “old baggage.”  Understanding  our current emotional reaction is often contingent on identifying past patterns.

        3.  Emotional Literacy.  Last, we need to expand our vocabulary for emotions beyond the basic emotions (i.e. fear, joy, disgust, anger, love, etc). An expanded vocabulary will enable us to have greater flexibility in shifting our emotional states.

UCLA researcher, Dr. Matthew Lieberman, found that learning to “label” our emotions maximizes cognitive ability.  His research showed that using simple language to “name” anticipated and experienced emotions, actually lowers  the arousal of the limbic system producing a quieter brain state. This in turn, allows the PFC to act more effectively.

According to Dr. Lieberman, “When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala, when you attach the name ‘Harry,’ you don’t see the reduction in the amygdala response. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words; you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses. As a result, an individual may feel less angry or less sad.”

Learning to unravel our emotional triggers is a key competency in increasing our emotional intelligence.  When we add the knowledge from neuroscience we expand our abilities to not only decrease emotional reactivity, but deepen our understanding of the messages our feelings are always communicating about our experience.

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. 

George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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6 thoughts on “Unraveling Emotional Triggers

  1. George,
    An excellent article on the important topic of managing emotional triggers. It’s so easy to go “external” in response to your manager’s question – to jump right to the point of “analyzing” the rationality of his co-worker. Rather, the starting point, as you say, is to understand how the manager is feeling and thinking that is producing his reaction.

    Very useful, practical points here.


    • Thanks. As you know we can’t do much “problem solving” when we are emotionally triggered. That’s often the last thing people deal with rather than the first.
      Often we don’t think that we are, in fact, emotionally triggered yet our “stuck” thinking reveals that something has activated us.



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