Holiday Triggers

The holidays are here, and, in many homes, families are gathering together to celebrate. This is a prime opportunity to not only (hopefully) have some fun, but also for us to be triggered. You know, something sets you off or causes an unexpected (and often irrational) reaction or emotion.  We also tend to put a lot of pressure on ourselves around the holidays- to entertain, create happy memories for ourselves and our loved ones, and to still keep up with everyday life. This creates stress that makes us vulnerable to be triggered. Add a bunch of family members to the mix and chances are you’ve experienced some of the following holiday triggers.

(Be sure to read to the end where I share what to do about them!)

Your Younger Self

You’re sitting at the dinner table, and your older brother (who might have had one too many) decides to bring up how you, the baby of the family, were excessively spoiled and got everything you ever wanted. You have a completely different perspective and remember having to work hard (much harder than him) to get a measly allowance each week. Suddenly you’re ten-years-old again, and begin whining about how hard you had to work and how he was the beloved first-born son so got everything he ever wanted.
Then you remember that you’re both now in your 40s and this conversation is not only irrelevant but irrational and inappropriate. But it’s too late. You’re 10, and he’s 15, and you’re arguing like two immature children.  Ah yes…this happens to me all the time. It doesn’t matter how old I am, when I’m with my extended family, I am suddenly a child again and respond as such. It doesn’t matter how much work I do on myself; she always shows up at holiday time because these events can trigger those immature emotions.


This year is the fifth year we’ll be celebrating holidays without my dad. I won’t sugar coat it – it sucks without him. He was the patriarch of our family, and nothing has been the same since he died. Holidays without him make me sad. I miss his presence, his food and wine, his quick wit, calming presence, and the way he could irritate the heck out of me and make me laugh all in the same 60 seconds. Holidays can trigger memories of dearly departed loved ones which can cause sadness. Or, maybe it’s your first holiday after going through a divorce, and your children are with your ex-spouse. This can also trigger sadness. Social media and the media depict holiday time as filled with joy and laughter and perfect families. That is sometimes true and sometimes, beneath all those images are emotions such as grief and sadness.


Your mom is drinking too much and sharing stories from when you were 10, your uncle decides to remind everyone about the time you were arrested as a teenager for attending an underage drinking party, your 2-year old decides to throw-up in the middle of the kitchen floor, and you just realize your divorced parents are flirting with each other. Kinda makes you want to exit out the back door (of your own house) and go to celebrate somewhere by yourself, with a bottle of vodka. Yes, holidays can be frustrating. Your younger self keeps showing up, you’re sad because you miss someone who passed away, and now everyone seems to be acting like a lunatic.  This all can trigger feeling incredibly frustrated.

So…. What should you do when these emotions are triggered on the days when you want to feel peaceful, calm, and enjoy your family?

First, accept the fact that you may not feel perfect all day long (or all week long – however long your holiday gatherings last).  When you feel the sadness or frustration arising, acknowledge it and accept that you’re feeling it.

Second, try to breathe through it instead of reacting. Just breathe and keep focusing on your breath for however long your sister keeps whining about you being more spoiled than she was.

Third, take a break and give yourself some space. If you feel yourself being triggered, go and spend some time in the bathroom or take a walk outside by yourself for 10 minutes.  No one will miss you (trust me, I’ve done this!) And, chances are you’ll come back a lot more refreshed than if you stayed and gritted your teeth through all the irritating moments or chaos.

Yes, holidays can be and are often filled with joy. But remember to keep your expectations in check. Families are complex, and relationships can be dynamic and often dysfunctional. It’s why we don’t live with our family of origin for our entire lives! Be kind to yourself and remember to breathe. The day (or days) will pass, and you will get through it. Hopefully with more positive memories and less triggering moments!

Cheers and Happy Holidays to you!

(P.S. That isn’t my family in the photo, but sometimes I think it could be! :))

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