New podcast: Staying cool talking with your teen's school.
March 17, 2023

Tripped or triggered?

Tripped or triggered?

I looked up the term 'triggered,' because it's used a lot these days, and I felt like it summed up how it feels to over-react. It's certainly the word I would use to describe that heightened emotional state I get when people - teens, husbands, mother-in-law, even sometimes my dogs - piss me off.

It turns out that being triggered in counseling parlance is the intense emotional distress you may feel suddenly when you're faced with something that reminds you of a past traumatic experience. 

Knowing that, I think it's a word too readily trotted out when sometimes we are just reacting to something in a normal, understandable way. It doesn't have to be a deeply buried traumatic experience - even simple surprise can trip us into over-reaction. So we need to have tools for coping in the moment, and for unpicking what underpins our behaviour. 

Dealing with over-reaction is at the core of Susie's Mindfulness practice, and there are lots of techniques we can have in our armoury, which Susie is brilliant at teaching. You'll find lots on her website, and she does one to one and group sessions.

Personally, I love the Pause, Acknowledge, Respond, and Reflect acronym because I need a quick and easy go-to when the fireworks start going off in my head. I can't be scrabbling around trying to remember what someone once said. PARR is like having a fire-extinguisher in my holster.

Pausing to breathe gives us so much more control and space. It throws our 'chimp' bananas, and helps it to calm down so that our thinking brain can restart. Susie mentioned some great techniques in the podcast. Just doing some deep breathing for the count of 4, holding for 2, and breathing out for the count of 4 does it for me.

Acknowledging what's happening also acts both as a speed bump on our mental race track and a signpost for finding a way out, because once we acknowledge that we're experiencing an over-reaction we can divert our energy either to leaving the situation, or calming ourselves down. It also puts down a marker that we can revisit - 'Here lies Rachel's reputation for calm' - when we have some space in our minds to explore what happened. 

Responding is different from reacting, because it's something we have chosen rather than vomited. It can be walking away, asking questions so that you can dispel your assumptions, or just saying that you'd like to talk about it later when you have had time to think.

Reflecting is - for me - the transformative part of the process. Sometimes the thing that made us over-react wasn't the thing that was the problem at all; sometimes it was because we were tired/hungry/hadn't exercised. Those are all easy fixes; 'must eat more' is something I'm always willing to work on. 

It's the other stuff that's really worth tackling. I lost my mind at a friend's birthday dinner because my husband had repeatedly, throughout the day, expected me to do things that pushed me to the limit. Instead of taking him to one side and explaining that he was being unreasonable, I got more and more frustrated. As a result, a remark at the dinner that seemed innocuous to others was like throwing a grenade into my brain. I wish I'd known then about PARR, because I would certainly have behaved better. I was calmed down by a wonderful friend next to me, but another woman took it upon herself to tell me I needed HRT! When HRT woman later apologised I told her that before blaming a woman for being unreasonable perhaps she should start by asking what role the man had played in reaching that explosion point.

It then did my own asking, and the truth is, nobody benefitted from what happened. I realised that I needed to be far better at creating boundaries and pushing back. It's easier said that done, but it was by taking the time to reflect back on why it had happened - then discussing it with my husband - that I found the words to express myself. 

When it comes to my kids, the most eruption-inducing thing has always been around mess, and I'm not even that meticulous. When it built up to the point at which I exploded, it was only by trying to explain why mess triggers me so much that I realised how my upbringing in a chaotic household had left me feeling stressed and disoriented if I'm surrounded by too much mess. For others, a messy house is a sign that they're not a good parent, for some it's not an issue at all, and that's fine.

Parents around the world will roll their eyes at this moment. 'My teen knows how much it bothers me and they still create a mess!' In this situation it's easy to assume that they're doing it to annoy us, which annoys us even more.

Building a close connection with my teens has helped them to empathise with my viewpoint, which was an important start to improving their tidiness. But in order to protect myself I have also put in place key things, which I've talked about in various episodes. I've told them that when they leave a mess they are telling everyone that it's someone else's job, so whose job is it? This has really helped to make clear how their decisions - or lack of action - affects everyone else. I've told them I'll make it my job on the basis that I'm paid for it, and that if I'm not asked beforehand then there will be a penalty - much as banks dish out penalties for going overdrawn. This deals with my feeling that I'm being taken for granted. It also means that they have a choice in the matter.

To make this work I gave them an allowance (Episode 4) which gives them freedom. But my access to their accounts means that I can also easily withdraw the money without having a fight; which is something I have resorted to when necessary. As a result, the anxiety and feeling that I'm not heard is gone. It was my problem, so I have found a way to deal with it. 

Coping with other humans is always going to be a bit messy and disorienting. They come to every interaction with their own history and assumptions. Having a go-to way of navigating those moments is like having traffic lights at a junction and signs to let us know how to move on. This isn't just about parenting; this a life skill that's worth handing onto our own teens.