Updated: Apr 25, 2020
Being triggered is challenging but we can choose how we respond.
Some of us have only ever known how to be thermometers and we don't realise we can actually be thermostats. These worlds sound similar but they are really vastly different and I'll tell you why. ..
"Often when we experience trauma or a crisis we flick into thermometer mode, it's a case of simple survival."
Many of us respond to what comes our way, when this happens we're in thermometer mode. We read what's happening around us and we react (often protectively and reflexively). Sometimes we might manage to be thermostats, evaluating what's happening around and adjusting as necessary to maintain equilibrium. The difference is that in thermometer mode we feel we're constantly in reaction to our environment, where in thermostat mode we feel we are part of our environment, empowered to act and respond in considered ways. In this thermostat mode we have agency; we can evaluate what's happening and we can adjust, contributing to and changing our environment. One mode leaves us at the mercy of circumstance, the other mode allows us mastery over how we engage with events.
Often when we experience trauma or a crisis we flick into thermometer mode, it's a case of simple survival. Commonly, the themes to our reactions (like shutting down or clinging tight) have come from long, long ago when we might not even have been adults. As younger people, often very small, we learn these techniques to cope with things we can’t control to protect ourselves emotionally. These survival strategies might have been all we could do then to feel somewhat in control but they don’t work so well as adults where we have more agency in our lives. We no longer need to tune out, shut down, withdraw or feel hyper alert to be safe.
Over time though we might continue to draw upon these reactive survival techniques that are no longer helpful when applied to very different adult circumstances.
It can take a whole lot of mindfulness, learning new strategies and professional support to begin to move into thermostat mode, to feel our own strength and to implement that more consistently.
It’s okay to engage in support and professional help. With most things in life we know that in order for us to learn any new skills we should go to a class, get a tutor, to learn more. Our emotional wellbeing is no different. When we’ve only learnt a few ways of doing things and we know we need to learn other ways, it’s totally okay to hire a professional, to collaborate with someone who is going to be able to see things from the outside and to help us re-frame and re-write our stories and to learn thermostatic skills!