I recently finished reading Lysa Terkeurst’s newest release: Good Boundaries and Goodbyes. The sentence from the book that keeps replaying across my mind like a billboard is from Lysa’s personal counselor Jim Cress: “if it’s hysterical, then it’s historical.” Lysa has shared this truth multiple times in her last book: Forgiving What You Can’t Forget, and through her Therapy and Theology Podcast series. But this time, as I read the words: “if it’s hysterical, then it’s historical,” I was ready to process and apply this truth.
You know that feeling when someone makes a comment, and suddenly, you are taken back in time to a memory from the past. The current situation you are in might not be that upsetting in the grand scheme of things, but you are still instantly overcome with a flood of emotions.
We all respond a bit differently to a flash from the past. For some it might be:
- Feeling our blood pressure rising and heating flooding our cheeks.
- Feeling our heart rate accelerating and our palms becoming sweaty.
- Feeling tears pricking our eyes and threatening to tumble down our cheeks.
- Feeling claustrophobic and needing to get fresh air fast.
- Feeling like we are stuck in quicksand and couldn’t move even if we tried.
The triggered memory might be the loss of a loved one, a car accident, or an argument with a friend. Unfortunately this reaction sometimes makes us feel out of control of our present situation, which is why the word “hysteria” is a logical way to describe this experience. Our emotions seem exaggerated to the situation that caused them. When we are flooded with emotions, our central nervous system kicks into high gear to try to protect us. When we feel these feelings of hysteria, it’s probably triggering something we haven’t fully dealt with from our history.
Staying Curious with our Perceived Threats
For our generation, many of us aren’t in a physical danger that would necessitate this kind of reaction. These original internal responses were hardwired inside of us to keep us safe from physical danger. Although we probably aren’t trying to escape from a grizzly bear, these instincts remain deep inside us, trying to keep us safe from other perceived “threats” we encounter. Instead of being curious about these reactions and thinking through what triggered these responses inside of us, our society has taught us to stuff those feelings deep down. If we ignore these reactions long enough, they will just go away, right?! I don’t know about you, friend, but stuffing these reactions down hasn’t helped me in the past.
The longer that I work with kids, the more they teach me that if we want to raise emotionally healthy children and become emotionally healthy adults ourselves, we need to take time to reflect on what triggers our emotions. By staying curious, we don’t immediately judge our reactions and feel guilty about why we experience those reactions in the first place. Instead we develop the capacity to process through these reactions in ways that help us grow instead of stifling us.
“What People Don’t Work Out, They Act Out”
Lysa’s counselor Jim Cress also explains that “what people don’t work out, they act out” (pg. 97). If we don’t work through these triggers, eventually these triggers will work their way outside of us in ways that we might not want to respond. At some point each of us reaches a breaking point. The trigger that sends us over the edge might not be that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. My hunch is we can all relate to losing our temper over a small frustration that normally wouldn’t escalate that far. Then also equally relatable comes the guilt for over-reacting to the situation. If we haven’t worked through those triggers, then we might struggle to keep them contained for good.
When we experience the above reactions of fight, flight, and freeze, most likely the situation that triggered this response reminds us of something in our past/history. In our normal, everyday interactions, we probably don’t experience these reactions very regularly. That’s why Jim says not to feel frustrated with our bodies for responding with these reactions. Instead he suggests we take a step back and reflect on what this trigger is trying to tell us. Unresolved feelings and experiences from our past won’t fully go away if we don’t process them. When we experience hysterical emotions, we need to process through the history that created this trigger.
When children’s crocodile tears gather near the corner of their eyelashes and start to tumble down their cheeks or their cheeks become red and splotchy as they clench their fists, I am learning to recognize there is probably more to the story of what triggered this reaction than what just preceded the reaction. Most education and parenting resources instruct adults to pay close attention to what immediately preceded the meltdown. Sometimes that is the case, and we can identify the isolated immediate trigger and work through it. However this is not always the case.
Our Triggers Don’t Have to Define Us
Sometimes when children come home fussy about doing simple chores, later they share that they felt overwhelmed with a friend’s words at school and were still trying to process the conversations hours after it happened. When children lash out, their anger might not have anything to do with us as parents or teachers. Sometimes their emotions build up, and they haven’t learned how to process through these experiences to move on in healthy ways. We hope and pray that as adults, we can be their soft place to land. Often our homes are the place where our kids feel safe enough to let their guard down and react in not so beautiful ways, because they know we will love them unconditionally.
When we learn to recognize the parts of our experiences that trigger these internal reactions, the greater chance these big emotions don’t have as hysterical of a control over us. Maybe this is how we begin to thrive as a culture: learning to live resiliently in a world filled with triggers through not allowing our triggers to get the final say. Our history doesn’t have to make us hysterical. Our history is there to make us curious. Our history doesn’t have to determine our legacy. “If it’s hysterical, then it’s historical” has become a life-giving catch phrase for me, because it has helped me make sense of these big emotions children (and adults) experience and makes me less frustrated when the emotions start to rise up.
Friend, I wonder how the concept of “staying curious about our triggers” might be a blessing to us and the children we love? Instead of getting frustrated by being triggered with these big emotions, how could we work through these emotions together in a healthy way? How powerful could it be to model for our children how to notice when they start to feel fight, flight, or freeze to take a step back and reflect on what’s triggering that reaction inside of them? The more we empower our children (and ourselves) to stay curious instead of judgmental of our emotions, the greater chance we have to build life-giving reactions inside all of us.
This week’s life-giving catch phrase comes from Lysa Terkeurst’s personal counselor Jim Cress. If you haven’t had a chance to check out Lysa’s books, I want to encourage you to check her out. (Seriously, as soon as you finish reading this blog post, go explore her writing: Therapy and Theology podcast and website.)
Every page that Lysa writes is full of authenticity. She provides practical, biblical tools to help us grow in our faith and emotional health. Also, Lysa is a unique author in that she brings two leading experts into her book writing process to help her gain a depth that is incomparable to other resources on the market. Dr. Joe Mudamalle, theological expert with Proverbs 31 ministries and Jim Cress, licensed professional counselor and Lysa’s personal counselor, join together to dive deep into real-life issues to develop both biblically sound and psychologically based conclusions that are practically applicable. (Wow, that’s a mouthful, but trust me-their resources are absolutely worth exploring!)
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