How to avoid triggers in the workplace

The trick is to develop emotional self-awareness, says Simon Ashton.

Reading time: 3 minutes

We’ve all been there when projects don’t quite go to plan or a challenging email lands in the inbox. In these moments, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and emotionally stressed.

These feelings always have a trigger, which we as individuals are able to control – how well you manage them depends on your own emotional self-awareness.

By their very nature, workplaces are stressful environments. Often high-pressured with little room for error, they can elicit a range of responses from employees – both positive and negative.

Impact on health

Last year 44% of work-related health cases in the UK were caused by stress, depression and anxiety, and 15.4 million days were lost in UK workplaces as a result, costing approximately £605 per employee each year.

The importance of addressing triggers in the workplace should therefore not be underestimated.

If left unaddressed, weakened memory performance, a tendency to look negatively on situations, risk-aversion and suppressed creativity can quickly become the norm.

Furthermore, psychological stress has become one of the main causes of prolonged absenteeism from work and has also been linked to physical problems such as cardiovascular disease, obesity and a weakened immune system.

So, what can you do to manage your reactions at work?

Recognise which thoughts, objects, people and events at work trigger negative behaviour and learn how to react accordingly


First and foremost, you need to take responsibility for developing your own emotional self-awareness. What does this mean?

Well, in simple terms you need to recognise which thoughts, objects, people and events at work trigger negative behaviour and learn how to react accordingly.

Start by logging any memorable feelings, outbursts or behaviours and in time look to identify a pattern.

If you have colleagues you are close to and trust, use them as a sounding board – they might have noticed things that have slipped past you and might be able to spot triggers that you can’t.

Control your responses

Once confident in identifying your individual triggers, you then need to be able to control your response to them.

This is of particular importance to those in leadership positions, as your employees will look up to you and replicate any emotional reactions they observe in turn.

Experiment with different methods of control – we are all individuals and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

For example, research shows that naming or labelling emotions has the power to reduce their intensity.

Putting emotions into words will create a distancing effect which will reduce activity in the amygdala – one of the areas in the brain responsible for interpreting your emotional relationship with the world around you.

And breathe…

It is also well known that emotions and breathing are closely connected. When you feel anxious or afraid you will tend to breathe more quickly and shallowly.


Conversely, when happy, you will breathe more slowly and fully. By simply practising your breath control you can help achieve a calmer state of mind.

Look at things from a new angle

Finally, work at reframing and reappraising what could be potentially negative situations. This means training your brain to recognise that there is often more than one way to look at an event.

For example, a delayed train might at first seem frustrating but instead of dwelling on this negative feeling, look at seeing the situation as an opportunity – why not listen to a podcast or catch up on some reading?

By actively reinterpreting situations to take a different perspective you can help reduce negative responses and behaviour.

While it is only natural to experience all kinds of unwanted emotions in the workplace, it is our responsibility to identify triggers and respond accordingly to solve the problem before it escalates.

This takes time, practice and above all a willingness to see things from a different perspective.


About the author

Simon Ashton is head of learning and development at Phoenix Leaders


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