It has been two months of sheltering in place and staying home. This has been a time of many changes in my outer world, and I am aware of my inner world being filled with turmoil and uncertainty as well. I have experiences that are magical and fun and then, seemingly on the same day, I am thrown into the messiness of life. I am on a roller coaster without visiting an amusement park!
I have been surprised at how easily I am triggered these days. My reserve tank of patience is running low, and I am easily upset by ‘little’ things that in the past I ignored or brushed away. I understand that a trigger is a threatening event that causes me to have a strong reaction. Usually my reactivity includes anger or fear and my breathing gets rapid, with my heart racing as my body is preparing for ‘fight or flight’. My ability to evaluate what is really happening disappears, and I lash out without thinking.
Walking in the woods has been my lifesaver these past few weeks. Spring offers an abundance of new growth and I am energized by the rain-washed air and the bright green of new leaves. I love my walks.
Until this happens.
I meet a couple on the trail who do not move over and walk single file when they pass me. I am furious. They are not ‘following the rules’. The guidelines are clearly posted at intervals along the trail, and they are acting as if the rules are for everyone else but them. They take up over half of the trail with themselves along with their dog. I glare at them and turn off into the woods to keep my distance. I am wise enough to save my yelling until they have passed me. Then I mutter and growl under my breath about how rude they are. My body is tense, and I have lost my sense of lightness and play.
I keep walking and start feeling frustrated with myself. Why can’t I just let this go? What is wrong with me? Even though my body is calming down, I feel ‘down in the dumps’. This is a natural pattern when a trigger occurs. The body relaxes once the threat is over, and then a slump in energy might happen.
What is the answer to dealing with an experience like this?
In these past months of slowing down and having time to reflect, I have been reminded of the saying, ‘My triggers are my teachers’. I resist this idea. How is that possible? Why do I need to be learning something when I am struggling just to survive?
Here is what has shown up for me in my day to day activities. I wonder if you will be able to relate to the idea that reactivity can be a signal for new learning? What might be possible as we observe our tough times and dig below the surface to where the nuggets of wisdom reside?
Here is what works for me………. when I remember to take these steps!
Step 1) Remind myself that my personality and past experiences influence me and can cause triggers. When I get upset, it helps to think about what might have caused this reaction. For example, I have a strong value around fairness and respect. What bothered me about the people who did not move over on the trail, was my perception of their lack of concern for my safety and their disregard for the guidelines. I am triggered when people do not obey the rules! My past experience as a critical care nurse during the SARS epidemic in 1993 creates a heightened awareness of the risk of the COVID-19 virus for me. I do not want to get sick, or risk passing the virus on to others. All of this means I am determined that the physical distancing rules be followed.
Step 2) I get curious. I pay attention to what is happening in my body and learn to recognize the early warning signs of stress. When my heart starts pounding as I look ahead and see other walkers taking up the whole trail, this is a message for me to act in ways that prevent an outburst. Curiosity has more power than criticism. Rather than jumping to judgment, I do what I can to remain safe. I have no control over others’ actions, and so it is up to me to take care of myself.
Step 3) I accept what is happening for me, and I remind myself that I have choice in how I respond. I take some deep breaths; I slow down and consciously relax my shoulders and hands.
Step 4) I remind myself that what I judge in others are often parts of myself that I struggle with accepting and liking. How could this be? If I am honest, there are times when I bend the rules or am unaware of the impact of my actions on others. It is easier for me to criticize these attributes in others, rather than admit them within me.
Step 5) I admit that I long for control. So much is out of my control these days and I grasp for whatever little bit of authority I can find. Telling other people how to behave on the trail might be the answer. I also know that ‘having control’ is an illusion. The only thing I can control is my attitude, and in this time of uncertainty, that is an important lesson.
These are the gifts I am receiving because of the triggers showing up in my life. I am struck by the power of shining a light on the challenges I face emotionally, and the beauty of showering love upon myself in the process. I am learning to be gentle with myself, to speak kindly to myself and to nurture my body with healthy meals and lots of rest. I have been given a body that requires love and care, and as I do that, my reservoir of patience gets filled and I have fewer times where I am triggered.
The uncertainty caused by this pandemic will continue as we move towards opening businesses and seeing more people, however the triggers will not disappear. In fact, they may increase. I trust that focusing on the gifts that emerge from reactivity will support us as we navigate life’s journey together.
My book, ‘Saying Yes to Life: Embracing the Magic and Messiness of the Journey’ was written before any hint of COVID-19. I am struck by the relevance of what I offer as I explore the trails of Trust, Uncertainty, Authenticity and Leadership in my book. I invite you to join me as we discover more gifts along this path called life.