Have you ever found yourself dreading a family gathering? Your aunt and the crazy stuff she says. The inevitable squabbles with your sister. Walking in the door and instantly feeling like you’re 12 years old again.
When your family causes anxiety, a wide range of interactions can trigger old feelings of anger, anxiety, and stress.
Triggers are instinctive and immediate reactions to experiences from past events. Often associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), triggers cause you to feel the way you felt during a traumatic event in the past.
We usually connect PTSD with horrific experiences like war, bomb attacks, rape, accidents, and physical abuse. But it is possible to suffer PTSD symptoms because of less dramatic childhood experiences, like neglectful or abusive parents, bullying, or other events that made us feel unsafe or threatened.
Because it occurred again and again, over time, and within specific relationships and settings, this variant of PTSD is complex. Triggers from family situations can send you back to the past in two toxic ways. First, the trigger sends you back to the past. Then, you regress—meaning you return to feeling like the helpless child you were in the past so that you act now in ways you’d rather not.
Some family situations don’t let you remain the mature person you’ve become. The dynamic often protects the perpetrator (the one who pushes your buttons) and blames you, the victim. Being treated like a child or infant makes it hard not to act like one.
When family members or family situations trigger you, it’s hard to stay in your adult, competent, and separate space. What’s the best way to cope?
How to Cope with Family Triggers
Dealing with the triggers that come from your family means breaking the problem down so that you can deal with it a step at a time. Pay attention to how you feel both physically and emotionally. Make how you feel be important to you. Your feelings tell you the truth so listen to them.
Identify Your Triggers
First, identify your triggers. Is it a particular tone of voice, a repeated question, a taunt, an attitude, a specific set of words? Decide what specific things make you want to run screaming from the room so that you can recognize and deal with them when they happen.
Prepare Ahead of Time
Get ready in advance for events that you know will trigger your discomfort.
If you’re dreading a family event but feel you must show up, make an escape plan so you can leave early if necessary. Drive yourself. Bring a friend and arrange a signal so you can go gracefully. Anticipate issues that might come up and plan what to say and do.
Once you’ve identified your triggers, let your family members know what bothers you and why. Be as constructive as you can and ask for their help in avoiding these uncomfortable situations. Make your request reasonable and be ready to repeat it.
It’s up to you to let people know when something upsets you. Use phrases like, “This conversation is making me uncomfortable and stressing me out. Let’s not talk about it now.” When family causes anxiety, setting boundaries will help take power back from the trigger and make you more resilient.
And if your family members don’t respect your boundaries?
Remain calm. Do what you can to create physical and emotional distance.
Use Self-Awareness and Self-Care to Protect Yourself
When you recognize a trigger, calm yourself. Try deep breathing or taking a short break (bathroom breaks are helpful for this).
When you do take breaks, remind yourself that you have choices. You are an adult now. When your family causes anxiety, you can choose to stay and ignore the triggers and button-pushers, or you can choose to walk away.
Mindfully observe your family as closely as you are able. Think of yourself as a witness to what’s going on. What is she doing and saying now? How does that make me feel? Don’t judge. Think carefully before you speak and change the topic if you can. Relate the situation to a pleasant memory, even give a compliment.
All in all, try to engage your sense of humor. Look for ways to respond that helps everyone feel OK—including you.
Use the Situation to Grow
Some family dynamics are toxic. If your family causes anxiety and there’s no way you can fix the situation, don’t blame yourself. Act to protect yourself and then get on with your life.
If you are serious about having an adult relationship with your family, use your interaction with them to help you work on your own unfinished business. Bad as it may be, their behavior can spur you on to becoming a stronger, more mature person.
The Last Resort: Avoid the Family Triggers
If you’ve tried all the coping strategies and they haven’t worked, you may need to distance yourself from contact with the family members and situations that trigger you.
Do your best to avoid discussing contentious issues. You can “tune out” the naggers and naysayers. Also, do your best to limit contact with the most hurtful and harmful family members.
Moreover, you can leave early if necessary. And if all else fails, you can cut off contact completely. You are a mature adult with the right to make helpful choices.
Most of all, if you need help deciding what’s best, please reach out for help. I can help by providing a safe space, peace of mind and options you may have not considered.