By Francine and Byron Pirola
A few months ago, our young Australian Shepherd went to doggie boot camp.
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 also applies to humans. It’s easy to be kind, patient and good humoured when we’re not under stress. We can be our ‘best selves’ with relatively little effort.
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’.
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?
Raising the Coping Threshold
We all know people who manage stress with grace and seem to thrive under pressure.
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.
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.
The key is in the graduated process. We need to increase our 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
If we’re honest, a lot of the stress in our lives is self-induced. For example, if we’re feeling financial stress, we should ask ourselves some hard questions about expectations and lifestyle.
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 a necessary one.
She makes sleep a priority and limits her commitments in order to avoid 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 and 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.