‘Tis the Season to Tame Triggers – Coping at Family Gatherings

‘Tis the season to enjoy celebrating the holidays with family and friends. But for many, family gatherings are stressful times filled with anxiety and the fear of being triggered by a toxic family member, causing past hurts to surface, or even being hurt anew.

There are, however, steps you can take to keep from being triggered, allowing you to enjoy and relax with your family and your friends.

What is a Trigger?

An emotional trigger could be an item, subject, word, or even memory that evokes powerful negative feelings for you. Things that trigger people often affect a person regardless of their overall situation, which makes them especially distressing for people living with mental health conditions.

We survive by learning from our past experiences what is safe and what is threatening. This includes our emotional states, which the brain processes in a similar manner as physical threats. Triggers kick in when our survival instinct registers a situation as being threatening. The lower, more primal, part of the brain fires up and sends out a call to emergency action in order to keep us safe.

When you are at a holiday gathering and you suddenly start to feel anxious or angry, something in the present has been connected to an experience in the past that was perceived as threatening or dangerous. Your brain, in the present, processes the situation in the same manner as it did in the past. Hence, you’ve been triggered.

Here’s the rub: once you’ve been triggered, you are now dealing with the past and are no longer present. You lose awareness of the present moment, which means you cannot interact well with friends or family. Triggering causes your brain activity to switch from the neo-cortex (thinking centers) of your brain to the lower regions (survival) of your brain, causing you to think unclearly, and have anxiety or even panic attacks. This results in less-than-ideal behavior by you and/or those around you.

You can take some steps to minimize triggers and their effect on you.

How to Know if You’ve Been Triggered

Triggers are whole-body responses to a real or perceived threat. Here are three behavioral and/or physical cues to help you identify that you are being triggered. Watching out for these cues, which keep you from becoming fully activated by past family triggers.

  • Body Shifts: Look for physical signs of anxiety: pounding heart, disturbed stomach, dizziness, uncontrollable shaking, sudden muscle tension, or cold and sweaty palms.
  • Mood Shifts: Notice when you experience a sudden mood shift. Avoid suppressing the emotions behind the mood. Suppressing the emotions will only cause them to bubble up at some point during the holidays, usually at a very inopportune time.
  • Breathing Shifts: Often we hold our breath around certain family members, or even inhale sharply. Take notice of your breathing – is it shallow? Is it rapid? Pronounced changes in your breathing are a good indicator of being triggered.

Being around family can mean being surrounded by a myriad of triggers. Criticism is one of the most common triggers. Feeling pressured to be positive or happy is another. Take a moment to consider what your triggers are around your family so that you can head off any potential emotional crises.

Some Tips to Tame Triggers

  • Acknowledge Your Feelings: Feelings are a part of everyday existence. Being around family and certain friends can cause old feelings to emerge, stirring up triggers. Be kind to yourself. Don’t compare your past and present life. What happened in your past should stay in your past. Learn from it and stay in the present moment.
  • Manage Expectations: We all have an idea of what holiday moments and gatherings should be. Most of the time, our holidays do not live up to our expectations. Be realistic with your expectations and learn how to remain calm, even in chaotic situations. This will help you to enjoy yourself without worrying that your enjoyment will be stolen.
  • Avoid All Negative Conversation: Engaging in negative conversation, like complaining, gossiping, and criticism robs the life and positive energy from the gathering. It also puts you into a negative emotional state, making you more susceptible to being triggered. Keep to positive conversation or even remove yourself from any conversation that won’t budge from the negativity.
  • Give Yourself Some Space: Sometimes, a trigger can be overwhelming. In such a situation, it can be best to step back and leave. It’s okay to ask for a break and remove yourself from the gathering so you don’t explode with negative emotions. Breathe deeply and clear your head. Even take a moment to practice meditation or mindfulness.
  • Keep an Open Mind: Family members and friends also have negative past experiences and traumas. Every single human being is at the mercy of their own triggers. Do not get wrapped up in thinking that they are deliberately trying to make you feel bad – they too are human and may be triggered without knowing it. Try not to be judgmental and consider things from their point of view.

Overwhelmed? Get Help to Tame Your Triggers

Don’t let your triggers haunt and control your life forever. Keep in mind that you always have choices. Stay focused on what and who is important to you during the holidays. If you have trouble and feel overwhelmed, seek out some time with a mental health clinician who can walk you through taming your triggers.


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