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How to avoid emotional quicksand when triggers are everywhere?

By Rev. Jim Innes

During certain times of the year, we may find ourselves more susceptible to negative thoughts. Holidays, anniversaries, and other such weighty moments, can throw us off-balance emotionally. We can call this “being triggered.”

A trigger is a pre-existing ‘condition’ that is inadvertently set off by hearing something or seeing something. Some examples might be: you see people at a party order the second (and third) glass of wine, and you get edgy because you relate this (consciously or unconsciously) to your alcoholic parent. After a light-hearted tease, you find yourself withdrawing from your friend because you remember a bully who persistently called you out in a similar manner. After your partner announces a desire to go out with friends, you find yourself overwhelmed by feelings of rejection because you experienced profound abandonment as a child.

When triggered, waves of emotion can swamp our carefully constructed sense of self. We then wrestle to right ourselves. And unfortunately, like flailing in quicksand, some reactions make things worse.

We can call this process “carrying too much baggage.” Too much ‘baggage’ comes from not adequately dealing with past negative experiences.

As an example, the person mentioned above, who experiences unstable feelings of rejection because their partner chooses to go out with friends, could end up quite distraught. To avoid a possible crisis, they will need to develop the mental capacity to understand that they don’t have to keep protecting themselves (in many intricate and often unconscious ways). If this doesn’t happen, they are ruled by their past abandonment, which will then dictate the present situation (their negotiable relationship with a significant other).

It is common to have our baggage triggered during holidays and other such significant moments of our life. Because in such times, our hearts rise closer to the surface, and we become increasingly vulnerable. And for the same reason, it is also common that our baggage creates significant everyday struggles within our most intimate relationships.

Many of us are forever managing self-protective dances between ourselves and those we care about the most. Some of these dances can become the very nature of what one does within the relationship. In other words, our relationship with a significant other can be laden with fear-based protocols.

Many of these ‘protocols’ were swept beneath the carpet many years previous. At the very least, they become the reason why holidays and other significant moments of our life can feel heavy to navigate. In the extreme, they become the root of a broken relationship.

As I see it, triggers are everywhere. When we least expect it, we can find ourselves knee-deep (then quickly neck deep) in our baggage. Then the issue becomes about effective self-care. We must address our emotional mess before we act in response. If we don’t, the predicament quickly becomes unruly.

It is often difficult to know if we are creating the problem, or the problem is being created by another…or both! A rule of thumb is this, and it comes from every spiritual tradition known, “do unto others as you’d have them do to you.” If we can’t, then, at least initially, the biggest problem lies within us.

Holidays can be a heavy burden emotionally. But they can also be opportunities to take stock and, maybe just a little bit, recalibrate our thinking.

Rev. Jim Innes is the rector of the Regional Ministry of South Huron.

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