The holidays are a time of enhanced emotional experiences for most people. The lights, anticipation of family togetherness, music, and nostalgia can create feelings of happiness and excitement for some. For trauma survivors, the holidays often bring emotions of sadness, loneliness, and pain. For family trauma survivors, the holidays are a reminder of painful traumas, toxic family members, overwhelming obligations, and financial burdens.
As both survivor and trauma therapist, I understand how this time of year can really make even simple tasks, like going to the grocery store, extremely challenging. The store is crowded, playing loud Christmas music, something on every isle can remind one of the pain. Even checking the mail can be hard for some, because the fear of a holiday card arriving from an abuser or toxic family member may be in the post.
Clients often express feeling perplexed why the past hurts so much in the present, and you may be wondering as well. The answer is that our brains are wired to respond to the current moment, based on past information. If your childhood was traumatic, your brain relates similar experiences as an adult, even if not the same, with childhood traumas. Even when the situation seems better or more manageable than past experience, the brain groups and processes the event as if it were an experience from the past; trauma responses are engaged, emotions are heightened, and the body goes into survival mode. These are automatic, physiological responses and we have no control over them… until we do!
We do have methods to help the mind and body process trauma from the past and help us rewire new neuropathways in the brain, allowing us to stay more present, even when things are difficult or traumatic. Modern science has given us tools such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Clinical Hypnosis, and Somatic Processing that have greatly reduced the strain and pain of traditional talk therapy alone. All of these tools require a licensed, trained, mental health professional. However, there are some tools that everyone can have and do themselves that will help you get through the holidays.
Have A Plan. When it comes to those family events that are intense and it seems there isn’t a way out; plan ahead. Create an exit strategy that you feel comfortable with. Establish ahead of time how long you’ll be in attendance and hold to your boundary. Most of us with a trauma narrative are not very good at boundaries and this can help you strengthen your boundary skills.
Be Creative! There are opportunities within every trigger to reclaim and hence rewire the trauma response. For example, if “Away In A Manager,” brings up pain from childhood when you hear it, examine the ways in which you can make it less distressing. Perhaps finding a version of puppies barking it could help or change the words to something ridiculous and funny. Or maybe the impossible to avoid Santa costume triggers you, try sketching grumpy Santa Cats! Maybe the act of decorating the tree causes you to not want to have a tree in your home, but you do enjoy the lights. Make a string of lights tree, or ball, or light up a pink flamingo! You get to set the rules now!
Honor Yourself. For trauma survivors, you weren’t given choices about what you went through or even how to move on from it. By honoring yourself, you create windows of choice in the present moment that can help you heal the past. If this time of year has always created financial anxieties, give yourself the gift of passing on the gift exchange. It’s healthy to say, “this year I’m not going to participate.” You’re also not required to give an explanation. Honoring yourself is about being in the moment with your mind and body. Noticing when anxiety is present and inquiring what is the cause.
Learn Grounding Skills. Practice your grounding skills and know which ones work best for you if you’re in public. When we do recognize our nervous system is on alert, we have back pocket grounding tools we can utilize: mindful breathing skills, 5 things exercise (you notice 5 you can see, 4 you can hear, 3 you can touch, 2 you can smell, and 1 you can taste), take a quick walk around the block or step outside, hold an ice cube in your hand or stand barefoot outside. These are just a few simple techniques, and there are so many more. The key is to find what works for you and know when to use it.
I’m hopeful that this blog may help everyone understand that the holidays aren’t always happy and wonderful for everyone. Survivors spend lots of weeks, months, and a good portion of the fall preparing their nervous systems just for winter celebrations. Be respectful when a holiday guest steps away this year or leaves the party early. They may be trying to create space and heal from a past where there were no options of space or healing.