A few months ago, our young Australian Shepherd went to doggie boot camp. Over five weeks she was trained by professional dog-handlers to walk calmly, socialise nicely and keep her focus under the pressure of distractions.
Video footage taken by the trainers proved she was capable. What really remained was the question: can her owners be similarly trained?
When the time came to do the pickup, the trainer talked about ‘trigger stacking’. This is the idea that stresses on the dog stack up and push her towards her ‘bite threshold’.
Lots of things can stress our dog, like the sound of the leaf blower or a vacuum cleaner, unknown visitors to our home, or well-meaning neighbours wanting to pat her soft, luxurious mane.
A single trigger may not cause too much distress, but if she gets a series of them, they stack up, and before we know it, she is over her bite-threshold and snapping at the throat of an elderly visitor. (Yes, this really did happen to poor Fr Terry!)
Trigger Stacking is not just an issue for dogs; it also applies to we humans. It’s easy to be kind, generous, patient and good humoured when we’re not under stress. We’re pleasant company and fun to be around. We can be our ‘best selves’ with relatively little effort.
But how do we behave when the stress accumulates and pushes us towards our ‘bite’ (i.e. coping) threshold? A single stressor is not too difficult for us to deal with, but if there are several stressors that happen in quick succession, we can easily cross our coping threshold and ‘lose it’.
For some of us, ‘losing it’ is an angry outburst, teary meltdown or sullen withdrawal. For others it can manifest in highly damaging ways including violence and verbal abuse.
It’s an awful place to be in, and awful to be around, but how do we avoid it in our busy and complex lives? There is no one magic solution, but here are two strategies to reduce these meltdown incidents.
Raising the Coping Threshold
We all know people who are incredible copers. They manage stress with grace and seem to thrive under pressure. They have an emotional and physical resilience that equips them to persevere under difficult circumstances. The stressors that would push someone else way past their coping threshold, doesn’t appear to affect them – they seem to have an exceptionally robust coping ability.
Byron is like this. He is a veritable tank when it comes to resilience: roadblocks or rocky terrain are conquered with dogged determination and even the occasional grenade from his wife won’t deflect him from his mission!
It’s an ability he has developed over years of working and living in high pressure environments with lots of different stressors. Deadlines, sleep deprivation, mind-bending business problems and complex human relationships have been part of his everyday world for decades.
His coping threshold is high because it has been extended progressively over years through graduated exposure. By putting himself into challenging situations that tested the limits of his ability, he has expanded his resilience boundaries and raised his coping threshold bit by bit.
This principle applies to more than just resilience. Like fitness, if we’re going to grow in any virtue or skill, we won’t do that by staying safely in our comfort zone. We have to push ourselves to the edges of our current capacity. That’s the growth zone.
The key is in the graduated process. We need to increase the capacity in a controlled and gradual way to avoid a catastrophic meltdown that does permanent damage to ourselves or to those we love.
Managing the Stressors
Sometimes stressors come out of the blue and are intense like a cancer diagnosis or unexpected job loss. Others are milder but may hang around longer like the stress of a large mortgage or a child with learning difficulties.
If we’re honest, a lot of the stress in our lives is self-induced. For example, if we’re feeling financial stress, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions about expectations and lifestyles. Similarly, if we’re feeling overwhelmed by how much we have to do, perhaps we need to re-examine our time commitments.
As someone who suffers from chronic migraines, Francine has learnt the painful way to moderate the number of stressors in her life, for nothing pushes her toward her coping threshold faster than a migraine!
As a high achiever, it’s been a difficult limitation for her to accept, but one that has been necessary. She makes sleep a priority and avoids over–booking her calendar.
As an introvert, these strategies of hers work well for Byron, who enjoys a quiet evening by himself. It’s also vastly preferable to the crankiness that accompanies a migraine!
And that’s really the point in all this: Our management of trigger stacking is as important to the wellbeing of those we love as it is to ourselves.
Avoiding the dog days
According to Wikipedia, the ‘dog days’ are the hottest days of Summer and are associated with sudden thunderstorms, fever, mad dogs and bad luck. Sounds a lot like the days when we trip through our coping threshold.
Even if we don’t go over it into a total meltdown, mounting stress and pressure takes the edge off our good humour and generosity. Our marriage vows call us to proactively manage our stress; to minimise it when possible and become more resilient in dealing with it.
This is intentional, proactive loving as it helps us avoid becoming burdensome to those closest to us.
We’re helping our dog do this by exposing her to challenge situations in a controlled way. We carefully manage social interactions with other dogs, gradually increasing her exposure. With visitors to our home, we allow her to observe them from a safe distance before inviting her to say ‘hello’.
With time and practice, she is getting better at welcoming new friends, both canine and human. She has made great progress in a very short period and hasn’t tried to maul a visitor since returning home!
If she can learn so quickly it gives us hope; maybe, we too, can tame our trigger stacking for a more joyful home life.
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