The Triggers In Your Environment

Last week I wrote about how easy it was to meditate in the temples and gardens of Bhutan and Nepal, and how challenging it was to maintain a practice at home with all the distractions and triggers.   Creating change in our behavior is difficult at best and nearly impossible if we aren’t aware of the environment and its impact.

You have probably read articles about how to change your eating habits from sugar and carb-rich junk food to fresh fruits and vegetables. Suggestions are to remove junk food from your house, avoid certain aisles in the grocery store, keep healthy snacks on hand, and change the type of restaurants you frequent.  (Switching from fast food to organic cafes, for example.)

In other words, you need to consciously change your environment.  Many of us struggle to create desired change in our lives because we forget the power the environment has on our behavior.  In other words, lack of successful change isn’t a failure of willpower or the inability to understand the actions to take.

What impacts our ability to change?  The triggers in the environment.  What’s a trigger?  Marshall Goldsmith describes a trigger as “… any stimulus that reshapes our thoughts and actions.”  As we go about our day, we are bombarded by environmental triggers.

Navigating the Delhi airport, I was assailed by triggers:  noise, crowds, confusing signage, a lack of airline personnel, and guards everywhere it seemed.  At first, I appreciated the guards as a symbol of security.  However, when I had to show my airline reservations and passport to the same guard each time I left the waiting area, to go to the restroom and return, I found my attitude toward them changing.

Guards that previously represented security were now a trigger for frustration.  Here’s the secret though to triggers, they aren’t personal.    It just feels like they are!  Triggers can be direct or indirect, internal or external, conscious or unconscious, anticipated or unexpected, encouraging or discouraging and productive or counter-productive, according to Marshall.  A trigger isn’t positive or negative, it is our reaction that is important.

Imagine you are walking around a shopping mall, and smell the wonderfully rich scent of cinnamon rolls wafting through the air.  That smell could trigger a sense of appreciation for the company’s unique advertising advantage, or it could trigger you to scarf down an entire roll, sabotaging your diet once again!  (And then engaging in a bit of self-loathing.)

If you want to create change in your life, you need to become acutely aware of your environment and the innumerable triggers in the world.   Then figure out your “trigger path.”  What are the triggers that support or impede your desired behavior change?

Each time we experience a trigger in the environment, we have an automatic impulse, a thought, an emotion, or an action (or all three).  If you identify the trigger, and the resulting impulse, you can develop a different response.  Shifting from automatic response to conscious choice.

A friend of mine isn’t looking forward to Thanksgiving or the holidays with his extended family.  He feels a desire and an obligation to attend family functions, but leaves them feeling depressed and at times angry.

His family has a particular world view and is critical of others who don’t subscribe to their beliefs.   Their comments trigger feelings of frustration and injustice in him.  He realizes he can’t change his family, but he doesn’t like how he feels when he spends time with them.

This week he made the decision to not attend this year’s family functions.   He would like to be able to enjoy time with his family.  However, until he can learn to respond differently, he won’t be placing himself in an environment that triggers so many negative emotions.

We can’t always remove ourselves from an environment that is not supportive.  Years ago, I worked for a boss who was challenging to work for (I’m being polite here).  I didn’t want to change jobs as I really liked the team I worked with.

I decided I needed to create a change in my responses.  I identified the behaviors (facial expressions, language) she exhibited that were triggers for me.   I figured out the trigger path I experienced.  Then I figured how what type of response would be helpful to me.

I wrote notes on stickees to remind me of what I wanted to experience.  Each time I was triggered, I would take a deep breath and focus on the thoughts and emotions I wanted to experience.  It took time and effort, but I was successful.

The world provides a variety of environments.  We move through them so quickly that many times we aren’t even conscious of the changes or the triggers.  Traffic, noise, certain locations, smells, language patterns, people and more trigger us everyday.

Do yourself a favor, examine the triggers in your life.  What are the negative impulses resulting from those triggers? What is your current response, and what you would like to experience going forward?

Give yourself the gift of a conscious response to  your environment.  After all, triggers aren’t personal, but your response is.