It's the holiday season. You travel to visit family for a holiday get together. There may be a big meal, watching sports, catching up on each other's lives and general chit chat.
On the surface it seems idealic - like a perfect TV commercial where the family drives in their SUV through beautiful snowy mountain roads and pulls up at a cabin where flannel-wearing relatives joyfully greet them. However, for many of us this instead can be a stressful experience. One that we may be apprehensive about in advance and that leaves us feeling like a stressed-out, diminished version of ourselves. Why does this happen year after year despite our best intentions?
The short answer is your family history created triggers in your brain and can easily set them off with interactions similar to those you had in your childhood. No one needs to be malicious to trigger these neural pathways. It's sort of like neuroscience meets stuffing and gravy.
You see, the emotional part of your brain contains significant wiring that was created at a young age based on your day-to-day family interactions. That competitive relationship with your sibling - it's still wired in there. That neglectful relationship with your parent - it's still wired in there. Those chronic or acute traumas - they're still wired in there. To make matters more challenging they're wired into each of your family members' brains too. It can feel like combining explosive ingredients together in a holiday test tube.
Your brain's wiring contains these triggers that are like landmines just waiting to be set off. Additionally, your emotional brain doesn't know about time. To it the triggers can be just as fresh as when you were 7 years old arguing with your sibling about who mom likes best. While the rational part of your brain knows that those events happened a long time ago, the wiring of the emotional part of your brain simply doesn't know.
The result of one's triggers can be:
- We can be apprehensive or even dread going to these family gatherings. We might even avoid them all together.
- We may feel like we're walking on eggshells at the events being careful to avoid past patterns and conflicts.
- We may be extra reactive during these gatherings and say or do things that later when our rational brain is back in charge we regret which can lead to guilt or even shame.
So, what can we do about it to have a less stressful holiday?
A helpful approach is to give the rational part of your brain time to catch up to the reactive emotional part of your brain. When you feel yourself triggered (before, during or after the event) put your focus for 10 seconds or more on slow, deep, belly breathing. Channel your attention directly on to your breath. You'll likely find what you do or say next will be more rational.
Be aware of how you experience these triggers. They can often be experienced as discomfort in your body even before you know they are happening in your mind. (There is a close link between your body and your emotional brain.)
Recognize that other family members also have their brains wired with triggers. So when they are reactive try to view them as being in an emotionally triggered state as opposed to viewing them as being a generally combative person. Perhaps inject into the interaction something as simple as, "It feels like we're starting to reenact an old pattern. Let's both just take a moment to relax first before we talk more about it." This gives their brain a chance to also bring back online their rational thinking. No blame needs to be placed.
Practice self-care. The more you build up the reserves of your nervous system in advance using practices like breathwork and mindfulness, the more capacity you'll have in the moment to deal with such stressors. Your threshold at which you become reactive will be increased.
Take care of you. There's nothing wrong with excusing yourself from the conversation when you start to feel triggered and go into the bathroom and take those deep breaths. It also gives the other person an opportunity to also reengage their rational brain. If you feel overwhelmed remove yourself at least temporarily from the situation.
If you want to learn more about the concept of a rational brain and emotional brain, see Fast Brain / Slow Brain on our blog.
We wish you a happy holiday. Remember, the goal is progress not perfection. One step at a time - you got this!