In February 2012, a large dog named Max had a drama-filled 24 hours and it ended in a tragic lesson about the dangers of trigger stacking. Here’s how to notice trigger stacking and prevent it from hijacking you.
Max’s day of drama began when he chased a fox out onto the thin ice of a reservoir. Then the ice broke and he spent 10-15 minutes in the cold water, struggling to survive before firefighters were able to rescue him. Then he was paraded into the television studio of his local news affiliate, with people he didn’t know, and unfamiliar sounds and bright lights. When one of the news anchors leaned into his face to give him a kiss, he bit her. Badly. It was months and multiple surgeries before she could return to her job.
Dog behaviorists call Max’s tragic reaction the result of “trigger stacking,” a series of small or large triggers in the dog’s environment that collectively increase the dog’s anxiety and lower his ability to cope. Trigger stacking can explain why otherwise friendly or mild-mannered dogs unexpectedly bite.
We know this experience as humans, too, don’t we? Maybe we have a stressful day at work, a difficult drive home in a snowstorm, and then, just as we pull into the garage, we realize we left an important file at the office. We gingerly walk through the deep snow in the driveway in our high heels, irritated that it hasn’t been shoveled for our arrival. Then we walk in the door and our beloved greets us with, “Hey, welcome home! What do you think we should have for dinner?” And we snap. And figuratively bite the friendly face that leaned toward us.
In humans, we usually call this experience “displaced aggression.” It’s one result of ego depletion, willpower researcher Roy Baumeister’s term for describing the diminished capacity to regulate thoughts, feelings, and actions after we’ve used up our available energy while exerting willpower throughout the day.
I really like the phrase “trigger stacking” because it gives me a mental image to work with as I navigate my day or as my clients navigate theirs. It gives me the image of something I can monitor as I go: Each mild stressor or trigger that I notice gets mentally added to the stack, and as the stack grows, I’m more likely to notice when I’m well on the way to ego depletion.
When I teach my clients the idea of trigger stacking, I teach them how to begin noticing the mild stressors they might otherwise miss and I teach them to mentally add those stressors to a stack, like a stack of matches or a stack of pancakes. Together, we figure out the usual tipping points for the stack and what to do as they approach it.
Practical, actionable solutions like this one are at the center of the online conflict resolution course I’ll be releasing soon. I’ll be teaching participants how to stay Calm, Cool, and Collected in conflict, negotiations, and other difficult conversations, whether conflict frightens you, you prefer to avoid it, or you’re too easily swept into it.