Emotions Revealed: Taming Your Triggers I


Ekman's research shows there are six factors in play when it comes to how strong a trigger is and consequently how hard it will be to tame or reduce it.  Triggers are these moments in life where we experience an echo from a past emotionally charged experience (that has not been processed fully) in a present day situation and our brains react as if what is happening right now is the same as back then. It is what happens when we blow up suddenly. Ekman also mentions something called a refractory time. This is the amount of time it takes us to cool off and come back to our rational brain.

1.  How close the experience is to an "unlearned theme". You might remember from a previous post that an unlearned theme is a universal experience that we have evolved to become pre-wired with. Meaning, we are preset to react emotionally to certain types of experiences. For example, when we fall off a chair we automatically experience themes of being in danger and become afraid.  

How close a situation connects to an unlearned theme correlates to how strong the emotional response will be. His example is, someone cutting us off in traffic is closer to the unlearned theme of "being blocked or thwarted" than someone critiquing us on a work project that is really important to our job. Meaning, we are more prone to flying off the handle and road rage than we are to blow up in meeting. And that it will take longer for us to cool down after being cut off than after our meeting. The experience of getting cut off communicates clearer the message of being blocked than the being critiqued in a meeting does. Then Ekman relates that to cooling off a trigger by giving the following example. If a person was humiliatingly teased by their father verbally as a child they have a better chance of reducing their trigger of rage at the slightly teasing as an adult than if their father had teased them physically by holding their arms down. The physical teasing is closer to the unlearned experience of humiliation than the verbal one.

2. How close a situation is to the original one(s) in which the trigger was learned: Continuing the teased example Ekman states that if a person was teased by their father in a humiliating way as a child they would be less likely to be triggered by being teased by a woman, a peer or a subordinate. They would be very likely to have problems with authority and strong, dominating men. 

3. How Early An Experience Was Learned: The earlier a situation happened in a person's life the stronger it will be.  

4. The initial emotional charge: The amount of emotion in the original experience in important. A highly charged even will have a stronger staying power and a longer cool down period. 

5. The density of an experience:  This is the phrase Ekman uses to talk about episodes that were repeated, and highly charged emotionally, in a short period of time. So if a person had to go through a repeated traumatic experience in a short amount of time it would create a stronger trigger than a one time trauma potentially. If a person was only teased a few times by their father growing up they would have a better chance at reducing their trigger than if they had a dense experience of teasing (for example perhaps during weekend custody stays).

6. Affective Style: Genetically, Ekmans' research proposes that some of us generally have faster and stronger emotional responses to events. In other words, some of us are more hot blooded than others. If you are a naturally sensitive and fiery personality you will have a harder time not being triggered and a longer cooling down time.