We are two days from Thanksgiving and I’m seeing posts on social media about surviving family gatherings and tips on how to manage stress. All very good information, but instead of trying to bypass the triggers that are bound to occur, I encourage you to embrace them as the important messengers that they are.
When we are triggered by something a family member says, instead of getting angry, sad, resentful, or defensive, why not use it as an opportunity to consider why you were triggered? And I’ll give you a hint…there’s more to it than “he said a shitty thing to me.”
Triggers are like poking an emotional bruise that hasn’t healed all the way. Someone comes along and says or does something that, either consciously or unconsciously, pokes that same bruise - meaning, it elicits that same emotion from the past. That is the trigger that can have us lashing out in anger or withdrawing in tears. We react with defensiveness because we don’t want another bruise like the one we experienced in the past. What we are actually upset about usually doesn’t have as much to do with what is occurring in the present as it does with what has happened in the past and hasn’t yet been healed.
Triggers, and the corresponding reactions, can be extremely detrimental, which is why it’s so important to treat them as critical messengers. Here are some tips on how to handle triggers:
1. Be aware of your emotions – I suggest a daily practice of mindfulness meditation. With time, meditation has a magical way of bringing an awareness to your daily life that you didn’t even know you were missing. Becoming mindful of your feelings and emotions empowers you to manage them before they can do damage to yourself or to others. In this way, you can notice the signs of a trigger such as your heart beat quickening, shallow breath, sweating, anger, or the fight-or-flight feeling. When you become aware of what you’re feeling, you can do something about it.
2. After recognizing that you are being triggered, you have a few different options. If you can excuse yourself, do so. Go outside and get some air. Breathe in deeply for a count of 4, hold the air for a count of 4, and then release for a count of 4. Do this a few times until you start to feel calmer. If you can’t excuse yourself, you can still take the breaths. They will help to reset your nervous system so you can think more clearly and it will give you time to respond in a constructive, instead of destructive, way.
3. Ask yourself why you were triggered. What was it about what the other person said or did that upset you so much? When in the past did someone say or do something similar? When have you felt this way before? An example might be “Uncle Joe always treats me like I’m stupid!” Uncle Joe might not actually think you are stupid at all but what he says pokes that unhealed bruise that triggers the same emotion that you felt in the past when you felt stupid.
4. If you can pinpoint a time in the past when you felt that way, great. If not, that’s okay, too. There can be lots of incidents in our childhoods that left emotional bruises that we don’t remember. Either way, try to identify the emotion that was triggered. Was it not being good enough? Not smart enough? Not attractive enough? Odds are it has to do with being not enough in some way. By becoming aware of the trigger, you have the power to start the healing of that bruise so it won’t trigger you anymore.
5. After identifying the thought or emotion behind the trigger, ask yourself “how true is that really?” By acknowledging that it’s not true and that the belief was created sometime earlier in life in order to protect you, you are now able to give yourself love and compassion. You are now empowered to choose whether you want to allow that to trigger you anymore.
Surprisingly, it really has nothing to do with the other person and how they are behaving. Ultimately, we always can choose how we will respond. We can be calm and collected and speak our mind from a place of neutrality or we can fly off the handle and cause irreparable harm to the relationship. It’s up to us.
The moral of the story is that triggers are not a bad thing. They are important messengers that we can use to heal ourselves and even our relationships through awareness and compassion for ourselves and others. Remember, we all have triggers, most of them developed when we were very young. When we can recognize that fact and show kindness and compassion to ourselves and others, we can enjoy happier, healthier relationships.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Love and Light,