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6 Grounding Exercises If You Get Triggered at Thanksgiving Dinner

If you’re living with mental illness or experiencing grief, celebrating Thanksgiving can be triggering. Whether you have trauma triggers, live with an eating disorder or are coping with the loss of a loved one, there are plenty of ways to make Thanksgiving feel a little less overwhelming. Here are six things to do if you get triggered at the Thanksgiving table.

1. Imagine yourself in a safe place.

If someone makes a triggering comment during your Thanksgiving celebration, try using your imagination to bring yourself into a safe space. Before your Thanksgiving meal, identify a few places that make you feel safe and at peace, and practice focusing on those spaces when you face triggers in your day-to-day life. If you know where you want to “go” before Thanksgiving and imagine transporting yourself there, it may be easier to use mental imagery to feel safe on Thanksgiving.

2. Take a few slow, intentional breaths.

If breathing helps ground you or you can feel your heart racing on Thanksgiving, take a few deep, slow breaths. There are several breathing techniques that can help you, but whether you choose 4-8 breathing, box breathing or several “unstructured” slow breaths, breathing deeply can help calm your physical symptoms and bring you back to the present. If you want to breathe in a less noticeable way, you don’t have to close your eyes when you take those deep breaths — simply focus your gaze on one defined object when you breathe.

3. Engage your senses.

Thanksgiving can be over-stimulating, especially if you struggle with social anxiety or sensory processing. If you want a safer sensory experience on Thanksgiving when your surroundings may feel overwhelming, try the “5-4-3-2-1” grounding exercise. Identify five things you can see, four things you can touch or feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. If you need to, you can also try to excuse yourself to a quieter space to try this grounding exercise — there should still be plenty of ways to engage with your senses, even if you’re in a less overwhelming environment.

4. Use cold sensations to slow your heart rate.

You may feel emotionally heightened after you encounter a trigger, and if you do, direct contact with cold objects can help stop some of your physical symptoms of anxiety or overwhelm. Direct physical contact with ice or other frozen objects can slow your heart rate enough for you to feel like you’re approaching your physical baseline. If you anticipate feeling triggered on Thanksgiving, make sure to have a glass of ice water — or any other cold drink — handy so that you can sip it slowly and mindfully and focus on the cold sensation. If you can excuse yourself from the table, you can also try splashing some cold water on your face or using an ice pack on your face or body. Even if you aren’t having Thanksgiving at home, you can still keep some ice, ice packs or frozen fruit in a cooler on the drive over and stash it in the freezer when you arrive.

5. Briefly excuse yourself from the table.

If you feel triggered during your Thanksgiving meal, and your emotions feel too overwhelming to handle at the table, it’s perfectly OK to leave the table and return when you feel a bit safer. Identify somewhere you can go where you’re less likely to encounter triggers, and make a mental “escape plan.” Whether you choose to head to the restroom for a few minutes or retreat to a quiet hallway for a few gentle breaths, your “safe space” should be well-equipped for you to cope with your triggers in a way that truly helps you. If you need to use your “escape plan” on Thanksgiving, just explain that you need to use the restroom and excuse yourself until you feel ready to rejoin everyone at the table.

6. Take your Thanksgiving meal one moment at a time.

Whether you anticipate encountering trauma triggers at Thanksgiving or struggle with eating disorder symptoms, mentally breaking your Thanksgiving meal into small segments of time can help you mindfully cope with any potential triggers. If you notice yourself thinking about the food or worrying about how your meal may affect you, try to focus on the flavors you taste and mentally congratulate yourself for eating each bite. Thinking of your Thanksgiving meal as an entire plate of food or a couple of hours of conversation can feel overwhelming, but breaking those challenges into smaller steps can help you feel more confident in your ability to successfully make it through. By the time your celebration ends, you will have conquered many small goals — how awesome is that?

Getty image by martin-dm