How to Manage Trauma Triggers During the Holidays

The holidays can be a difficult time for people who struggle with the impact of childhood traumatic experiences and PTSD. Trauma therapist Laurie Kahn, MA, MFA, LCPC, is the founder and director of Womencare Counseling Center, co-creator of the Trauma Consultation Program, and author of the forthcoming Baffled By Love: Stories of the Lasting Impact of Childhood Trauma Inflicted by Loved Ones. She discusses common triggers that trauma survivors may experience during the holidays and what people can do to take care of themselves during this time.

Why Holidays Are Painful for People With a History of Trauma

Holidays come with strong messages of togetherness, joy and celebration. This can minimize and discount your experiences if childhood for you included physical or emotional abuse, neglect, addiction or other trauma. “Most people who have experienced childhood trauma have complex, mixed feelings about the holidays,” Kahn says. “Often the same people who loved them are the ones who hurt them and frightened them.” People who’ve survived trauma may feel shame around their feelings, especially if they are ambivalent toward their family. A sense of dread may be accompanied by longings as well. Traumatic holiday experiences may include seeing a person who physically, verbally or emotionally abused you in childhood. They may also include being around family members who abuse substances or have unpredictable moods that remind you of times in the past when you felt unsafe.

When Holiday Trauma Isn’t Addressed

People with histories of trauma may numb their emotions when confronted with the stress of the holidays. They’re at risk of using unhealthy behaviors to cope, especially if they’re in recovery from substance abuse or have mental health issues. Common ways to cope may include either shutting down or feeling overwhelmed and easily triggered, which can result in a range of coping mechanisms from numbing through drinking, drugging or over-shopping to engaging in disordered eating or self-injury. “The holidays can feel like an emotional minefield for people who have challenging family relationships,” Kahn says. “There is pressure to discount what your family really feels like and looks like, and that can send people into black-and-white thinking, villainizing or idealizing.” When people are mindful of their past traumatic injuries, they have a better chance of taking care of themselves and not engaging in harmful and dangerous coping mechanisms.

Navigating Holiday Trauma Triggers

It’s important to do the work ahead of time to remember common triggers you experience around the holidays, because you’ve likely encountered them before. “When you know what the triggers are, you can have a plan,” Kahn says. She suggests some ways to care of yourself during the holidays:

  • Limit your visits. Restrict the time you visit with family to what feels comfortable and safe for you, even if it’s just an hour or so.
  • Have a post-visit plan. Following your visit, spend time with a good friend, attend a support group, or participate in self-care activities like fitness, meditation, or engaging in something you enjoy like listening to music, creating art, knitting, journaling or other calming activities.
  • Take breaks. Walk around the block. Go into a room by yourself and do some mindfulness Sit on the back porch and call a friend. If tensions are getting high or you’re feeling stressed, remove yourself from the situation for a while, or say your goodbyes.
  • Design your own holiday. Holidays don’t have to fit the traditional mold. If family is too stressful, start new traditions with friends. Volunteer. Take a cooking class. Don’t put pressure on yourself to make your holidays look like the happy, close-knit family experience society says it should be.
  • Have both alone and connection time. Be around people, but also carve out time for yourself.
  • Be aware of black-or-white thinking. The holidays won’t be all bad or all good. Make sure to pay as much attention to the positive aspects as you do the negative ones.
  • Self-sooth and ground. Engage in self-soothing and grounding practices that help remind you of who you are. Wear your favorite cozy sweater. Play your favorite music. Have a meaningful item in your pocket you can hold in your hand if stressed that can bring you back to the moment. Have inspirational quotes or notes of encouragement from friends on small pieces of paper that you can read if needed.

Remember that you’re an adult, and that you can make enlightened choices. You can’t control other people’s actions, but you can control your reactions, and you can learn ways to keep yourself safe and healthy. “Know that you can feel both loss and gratitude during the holidays,” says Kahn.

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