Home for Christmas? Are you getting triggered yet?

So, you’re a student.  You’ve been away from home for a few weeks (for some of you it might have been your first time living away from home) and chances are it’s been tough.  Way tougher than it should have been and probably nothing like as much fun as it could have been.  You missed home more than you normally would have because there have been pretty much zero distractions and you’ve been stuck inside your tiny student room for weeks.  Or maybe your experience wasn’t too bad and you’d prefer not to have to go home at all.  Whatever.

Anyway, you finally got home, after all the stress of being worried you might not be allowed to, and for the first few hours, maybe days, it was great.  Everyone was pleased to see you; it was great to get some home comforts back and you had a bit more space.  But then…well…what was it?  Someone said something that bugged you? There was a clash over the bathroom/TV/an untidy room?  Someone expected something of you that you didn’t want to give?

The truth is that once you’ve moved away from home it can be incredibly difficult to go back.  However tough it was at uni, you were independent.  You were captain of your own ship and could pretty much organise your day and environment (within current COVID guidelines, of course!) as you pleased. Now you’re home and people want to take back control again.  They are not aware of everything you’ve been through, who you have met, how you have navigated the realities of university life in a pandemic.  They just see the person you were when you left and can’t assimilate how much you have changed.

This story has been repeating itself over and over again for decades.  You and your family have a choice, though.  You can allow yourself to get irritated as all those old buttons are pushed, or you can take a leap of self-awareness and try something else.

So, what can you do when you get triggered? Try using this simple Tara Brach technique.  Actually, it sounds simple but like many simple-sounding things, doing it really well can be tough.  It will take practice and you may not always get it right, but if you try it and keep on trying, you may manage a peaceful and even enjoyable Christmas with your family.

Here’s the acronym to help you remember: RAIN

R: recognise

All this means is to notice that you’ve been triggered.  That should be pretty straight forward.  You get that ‘wound up’ feeling of annoyance or frustration or whatever it happens to be.  Scientifically speaking what happens for most of us is that the most primitive part of our brain (the emotional, very powerful part called the limbic system) reacts first.  It sets off responses which, very simply put, have physical as well as mental consequences.   This is all controlled by the part of your brain that is not particularly rational.  In fact, not at all rational.  If you take a moment to stop and notice what’s going on, you give the rational, more sophisticated part of your brain time to kick in.

A: allow

Imagine you’ve done the grown-up thing (in the words of that American senator you’ve put your big boy/girl pants on), and you have taken a moment to recognise the trigger instead of just reacting to it.  What next?  Well, allow or accept those feelings.  They are, after all, just a learned response.  Tune into them and allow yourself to feel the feelings, think the thoughts, without necessarily taking any further action or feeling the need to say anything out loud about them.  Be in your own world with them and let them be.

I: investigate

How do these emotions and thoughts affect your body?  Is your face hot?  Do you want to clench your fists or grit your teeth?  How is your pulse rate?  Something that truly separates us from the animal kingdom is our awareness, our consciousness, an ability to turn questions upon ourselves.  And this is what you do now.  As you’re allowing the feelings to arise ask yourself what’s beneath them?  Why are you being triggered by this situation?  Usually when you dig deep enough it’s due to some kind of fear, although it may not seem that way at all on the surface.  You have to dive really deep and be ruthlessly honest with yourself which can be a very illuminating journey in itself.

N: non-identification

Here’s the magic.  What if you didn’t wear these triggers like a coat you pulled on every time this situation arose?  What if you accepted that, yes, it’s happened this time, but it is not necessarily your identity?  Just because you are annoyed or frustrated now, these are passing states of mind, created by some old programming, and they are not the totality of who you are.  If you can create some disassociation at this point and imagine watching yourself (I’m talking high-level skill here) go through each episode, with practice you may find that a similar situation next time fails to trigger you at all.

Can you imagine a time when a family member points out some weakness or fault in you and you can simply understand that that’s their perspective, not necessarily the truth, so there’s no need to let it wind you up?  They can think that way if they like, it’s up to them, and you feel no need to change their mind.

Now that’s Christmas peace, right there!