For some, the holidays are synonymous with a strong sense of familial closeness and love. However, this is not the case with many family gatherings, where relatives trigger each other, and chaos quickly ensues. If this describes your experience with the holidays, then this article is for you.
I’ll never forget one Christmas break during my second year in medical school. I hadn’t been home for two years because of study and work demands. I was excited to see my family. Within five minutes, my mother launched into a fight that had started two years earlier. She picked it up almost to the sentence. I was both dumbfounded and upset. This wasn’t part of my vacation plans.
This isn’t an uncommon occurrence. You’ve waited all year to be with those who you love, and people aren’t getting along. It goes both ways in that loneliness is also magnified. The medical wards are usually full because many patients have increased problems around drugs and alcohol. It doesn’t make sense, except it does if you understand the mismatch between the conscious and unconscious brain and the nature of triggers. So what happens? Happy holidays – not
Any time you are anxious or angry, you’ve been triggered. Your nervous system has connected a current situation to a similar unpleasant past event. It doesn’t matter if the present or prior event represented a true threat. It just has to be perceived that way and the body will secrete stress hormones in its effort to resolve the problem. The sensation created by these chemicals is anxiety. Anxiety is the result of the reaction, not the cause. When you can’t solve the issue, more hormones are secreted, and you’ll become angry.
The reason why family dynamics can be so volatile, is that most of your reactions are programmed by your parents during the first 12 years of life, especially the first two. It matters little what your parents teach or preach; it’s their behaviors and attitudes that become embedded in your nervous system. If you have come from an abusive family, your reactions to the present will be intense, although the present “danger” might be minimal. It is well-documented in the ACE (adverse childhood experiences) studies that the incidence of chronic pain, anxiety, depression, obesity, heart disease and suicide are higher than the norm. You needed to be hypervigilant as a child and it doesn’t change as you age. You are and will continue to be hyper-reactive out of proportion to the circumstance. All of this is exacerbated in families dealing with chronic pain.
During the Holidays, you are around the sources of your triggers from your parents, siblings, children and other relatives. No wonder they can be problematic. Landmines are everywhere.
How did this happen? I watch parents with babies and young children laugh, hold and play with them. It’s a precious time and they would do anything for them. Yet by five or six years-old, there is often a lot of arguing and fighting between parents and children. Suffering from chronic pain doesn’t help. I don’t have to detail what frequently happens during the teen years. The household can be a battlefield — a war without any hope of an end. I don’t how common this scenario is, but I am seeing it frequently in my practice. I only need to ask a few questions and be observant. Many family situations are intolerable beyond words.
The problem is that we program our own triggers into our offspring. They watch their parents become upset with them or each other and they learn their own behaviors in response to similar stressors. Then they become the cause of deep reactions in their parents. Why else would you yell at this person who used to be this incredibly wonderful child you brought into this world? But you are the adult and you are now in the same boxing ring as your 12-year-old. It’s your role and responsibility to provide a safe environment where your family can feel safe and nurtured. Only then can your child connect with his or her creativity and thrive.
You also may be critical of them. Really?? Anytime you are critical of someone, you have projected your view of you onto them. Remember that you are the one who taught them these behaviors that are now upsetting to you. It is remarkable the number of friends we have whose parents continue to be incredibly critical of them well into adulthood. The negativity is often intense and occurs in the face of the son or daughter doing the best they can to help and be supportive. The intensity of the verbal barrage is unbelievable to me and seems to worsen with age.
So, you have planted your own landmines. Would you yell at a stranger with the same intensity that you talk to your child or spouse? How do you think you appear to them when you are upset? Is that what you want your children to see?
Now it’s the Christmas season, and these deep triggers are coming back into your world. You have missed your family and want to be with them. What are you going to do? How are you going to handle being triggered, because it is inevitable you will be set off at some level. The two faces of Christmas
Here are a few suggestions, most of which I have learned the hard way.
- Remember the problem with the strong familial triggers and concentrate on enjoying your family. Play may be challenging, but it’s also the reason you want to be with them.
- Don’t give any unasked-for advice. They have survived the year without you and have you ever heard of a child listening to a parent’s criticism at any age?
- Remember that when you are volunteering advice, you are really saying, “You aren’t good enough the way you are.” That is probably what your parents did to you when you were young. It’s also why most of us have the “not good enough” voice in our heads.
- Visualize yourself being angry and what your family is seeing when you’re in that state. Be the person you want others to be.
- If you get upset, quickly leave the room. Nothing is ever solved in a heated argument.
- Be curious and genuinely interested in what your family is up to.
- Don’t discuss your pain, medical care, politics, religion, or complain – about anything. After all, it is the season of joy regardless of your belief system.
- Read Parent Effectiveness Training by Dr. Thomas Gordon. It is a classic and the most influential book that I have ever read on any topic.
I want to re-emphasize the powerful irrational nature of being triggered. It is only you and not them that is responsible for your anger. (I well-know that it still feels like it is him or her that upset you). Own it. It is yours.
You’re the one who created the behavior in your child that is now upsetting you. Own that too! Remember how excited you were when they came into the world. Remember the good times and don’t spend time on past differences. Why? It’s done.
A Cigna insurance study in 2018 demonstrated about 40% of Americans feel socially isolated.(1) During my pain experience, loneliness might have been the one most crushing aspect of my ordeal. It was brutal. Connect with gratitude and remember how lucky you are to have friends and family. If you are someone reading this who is socially isolated, work on finding a way to re-connect with someone or give back. I am aware how terrible a feeling this is, and I’m really sorry. The Holidays do make it worse. But by being aware of the impact, you have a higher chance of dealing with it.
Make a commitment to enjoy your holiday season and if you detonate a landmine, use the situation as an opportunity to practice your own tools of staying connected and centered. Become the source of Holiday cheer!
- Cigna U.S Loneliness Index (2018).