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Marieke van Vugt

Don't let the trigger trigger you!

One interesting lecture during the International Conference on Mindfulness that I attended was given by Susan Boegels from the University of Amsterdam about mindful parenting. She talked about several things that are really interesting, even for a non-parent, which revolved to a large extent around dealing with triggers.

One of the most striking exercises was "morning stress." Imagine a scenario where you're trying to get ready to go to school, but the child takes forever to get ready, while you have received several warnings in the past that the child really needs to get to school in time. What are the bodily signals you feel? What emotions? What images come to mind? What action tendencies do you feel? Now what happens when you try to react in a mindful way, rather than a habitual way in this situation? What would it feel like?

Recognizing stressful situations like this, and most importantly, becoming aware of what triggers you, can be very transformative. It allows you to mentally prepare for these situations, such that you are more aware of your habitual reactions, and therefore, have a larger chance of transforming them. This is not restricted to a morning stress situation. For example, I do not have children, but I notice that doing too many things at the same time and under time pressure can trigger me, and make me feel stressed. What I can do is simulate this situation in my mind, and seeing where I can find space in the situation. I could recognize I am doing too many things and knowing that that stresses me out choose to focus on a single one of the tasks at a time. Even though that may make some people that want things from me unhappy, I know I will be able to accomplish the one thing I am doing much more quickly and with less stress. Simulating these situations helps you to develop your self-awareness, and to decrease your automatic reactions.

Two other intriguing exercises are: (1) use the child's worst behavior as a mindfulness bell. Can you develop in yourself a habit such that when the child exhibits their worst behavior (or any other very stressful situation) you first take a few minutes of a meditation break before reacting? (2) send a mindfulness reminder to a buddy. In this exercises you send an sms to another person that says ".b". When you send the sms, you take a few minutes meditation break, and when the other person receives it, they too are doing a meditation break. Knowing this makes it extra inspiring, because there is a good chance that you are your buddy are practising at the same time! In short, when you can recognize your triggers, they can become opportunities for meditation practice. Parenthetically, the mindful parenting intervention from which these exercises were taken has been quite successful. Interestingly, when parents participated in this intervention, their children's psychopathology (e.g., autism, ADHD) reduced significantly.