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Trauma Around the Holidays

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

It is not uncommon for the holiday season to be very difficult for people to cope with, especially survivors of trauma. This may include being more easily triggered, or heightened feelings of loneliness, depression and other strong emotions. There are a number of reasons for this. Some of these reasons include the fact that stress may be significantly heightened during the holiday season, the possibility that trauma may have occurred around the holidays, and the reality that many places tend to be louder and more over stimulating during this time.

One of the reasons some people struggle during this time of year is due to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) related to fall and winter (there is also SAD which revolves around spring and summer). The symptoms of the disorder can be severe, and may leave someone feeling more tired and depressed. People with other mood disorders, like bipolar disorder, are at a higher risk for these issues.

In a lot of cases, the difficulty of the holiday season is caused by the people that someone may have to be around. This may include family members who do not respect boundaries, engage in toxic behaviours, may not be safe, or may have played a part in your trauma.

While this may be a tough time to deal with, there are some ways to cope that may make it easier.

Ways to Cope

Putting yourself first

While some circumstances may not make it a reasonable possibility, if you have a choice about whether or not to attend a gathering, try to remind yourself you do have a choice. You are not a bad person if you choose to prioritize your mental health over a family gathering. You can change your mind, say no, and make choices that are right for you. This does not mean that you do not love your family. Your love does not mean they are entitled to make demands of you. Your voice matters. And you have a right to use it. (This seems like a good time for a reminder that you’re not a bad person if you don’t love your family for whatever reason.)

In some cases, it may also mean putting forth and enforcing boundaries. Please check out our blog post on boundaries here. These boundaries may be things like not attending events, or they may be things like setting boundaries about what topics you choose to talk about, how long you will attend the gathering, or leaving early if things get uncomfortable.

Putting yourself first may also mean finding time for you. You don’t have to be “on the go” the entire holiday season. Find time to do things that you enjoy or otherwise practice self-care.

Show yourself kindness

You deserve your own kindness and understanding. You are not weak or anything of the sort. Holidays are stressful, and this can increase if you have trauma. Try to have a plan for if things go wrong.

Let yourself feel your emotions. This may mean grieving for what you’ve lost as a result of your trauma or allowing yourself to feel anger and/or sadness.

Have a support system

Having a support system can make a huge difference in coping through difficult times. This may mean having someone to talk to about how you’re feeling (friends, a therapist, support group, etc). It could also mean having someone to hang out with. When it comes to dealing specifically with a family gathering, this may mean someone you can text throughout the gathering or maybe even make plans to connect before and/or after the dinner whether it’s in person, by phone call, etc.

Plan some coping methods

Work at recognizing your triggers and coming up with a plan to deal with them if they arise, or plan for ways you can avoid them if possible.

This may include things like grounding techniques, making a self-care box, planning for fun things to do, or things like journaling. I recently wrote a blog post about navigating traumaversaries, and some tips for that. These tips may be useful for things like dealing with the holidays as well. The blog post is here.

Things like being able to step outside at a family gathering may help to ground you, give you privacy to practice some breathing exercises or otherwise clear your head. I also want to note that someone doesn’t have to do “something wrong” at a family gathering for you to be allowed to have struggles. It can be an overwhelming situation, even if your family does everything right.

Try not to forget the basics

This includes things like staying hydrated, eating, taking medications and finding time to rest. What I personally find helpful is a chore app on my phone. I input tasks in there that I want to do every day and I “check” them off every time I complete a task. The app also allows me to assign point values so that I can plan for rewards for myself if I hit a certain goal. The app I use is OurHome, but there are several other apps out there. You can also set reminders for yourself on your phone, put sticky notes up around your house, or find an accountability buddy. An accountability buddy is someone you talk to and you both check in on each other when you can and encourage each other to meet your daily goals. They might text you to let you know their progress, check in on yours, and also offer words of encouragement.

Try to make plans for after the holidays that you will look forward to

This may mean making plans with a good friend, going to an event you like, or going somewhere you love like a museum or other place. This may mean buying yourself a book you’ve been wanting to read or putting time aside to binge watch a new season of your favourite show.

Come up with a safety plan

If you are going to a place or environment where you worry you could feel unsafe, and not going isn’t a feasible option, try to have a safety plan in place.

This may mean things like downloading a safety app or checking emergency features on your phone. Maybe emergency services feel even less safe to you, in which case, try to plan for alternatives. Consider whether there is a friend or loved one who you could text with a code word to help get you out or otherwise help protect you if things get unsafe. Perhaps seeing the word means they need to call you and come up with an excuse to get you out of there, or just otherwise interrupt whatever situation is going on. Maybe the code word means they need to call someone for help. You deserve safety, and any consequences someone else feels for endangering your safety are on them. Try to remember that.

A big part of a safety plan is setting up an exit for yourself. If you drive, make a point of driving yourself to events rather than getting a ride with someone else, so that leaving is an option for you at any time. If that’s not possible, do what you can to set up an alternative way to leave. One option might be talking to a friend with a car about the possibility of them picking you up when you text them. Another is downloading and setting up the Uber or Lyft app, if one is available in your area, or saving the number of a cab company that serves the area. One other possibility is looking into the public transit around the area and making sure you have an idea of the schedule they run around that location and where they stop, as well as cash or whatever else you might need to pay for a ride on that transit.

One thing to keep in mind about a safety plan is that you don’t need to feel there is a danger to your life or a possibility of assault to have a need to leave.

If you have family who you can sometimes deal with just fine but who can become emotionally abusive, triggering or otherwise toxic sometimes, that is an extremely valid reason for an escape plan. If you are meeting with a group of people who you know might or might not include someone who assaulted you in the past or can be upsetting for you to be around, it’s valid and quite reasonable to plan for the possibility that the person might show up. If the location where you are meeting is one where you experienced trauma in the past, and you do not know how you will react to being there again but cannot avoid going, it’s completely valid and probably a very good idea to have a plan in place in case you can’t handle staying there. Even if the event you’re going to does not seem like it could be unsafe or upsetting in itself, but you are feeling anxious or on edge because of an upcoming traumaversary or for any other reason, it might be wise to think about how you could get yourself to a safer place if you feel like that’s necessary at any point.

Remember that you are valid

Your feelings and your trauma are valid. It’s not a poor reflection of you if you aren’t ready to cut people out, set boundaries or do anything else that others might say could help you deal with things. You are the only one who knows the circumstances of your life and can decide the best ways to cope and handle any difficulties you might have. The holiday season can be hard for so many reasons and on so many levels, and you are not weak for struggling with it.

You are not alone in this struggle. While it can be unbelievably hard, you can do this.

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