The holidays are often dreaded by those who’ve experienced trauma, and family and friends may struggle to understand why. But in order to understand the “why,” it helps to understand the story behind trauma symptoms.”Lynn” was frequently raped as a child by an older cousin at family reunions and holiday gatherings. Parents and adults were often just a few feet away from the closet where “Bert” repeatedly abused her, with threats that if she didn’t comply, he’d target her younger brother.
As a child, “Ellen” was trafficked by her mother on her birthday. For years just the thought of Ellen’s birthday made her suicidal. Weeks before the date, she began dissociating to escape intrusive memories and struggling not to vomit when well-intentioned friends asked about how she planned to celebrate.
Joe, an Army veteran, spent Christmas watching children in war-born Afghanistan lose all they in raids on their villages. Joe also witnessed the deaths of several of his military buddies. Weeks before December, he begins re-experiencing war-time memories and struggles with paralyzing survivor guilt.
For most of his childhood years, Josh endured his father’s abusive, drunken rages on Christmas and other holidays. His father’s outbursts often occurred at once-a-year-family gatherings, where Josh’s aunts and uncles were often forced to intervene. Christmas is a day that carries memories of violence, fear, and shame that Josh wishes he could erase forever from his memory.
The holidays and other life celebrations are especially painful for trauma survivors who may experience
Outsideness. The holidays emphasize the fact that trauma survivors do not experience life as other people do. Trauma has robbed them of the “normal” life everyone else seems to enjoy. Other people seem happy, yet their emotions are out of control and they often find themselves on the verge of desperation.
Survivor guilt. The holidays can elevate grief for lost friends and loved ones.
Rage. A common symptom of PTSD is anger and rage. Rage serves a useful purpose as a survival response during was or sexual assault, but it loses its purpose as a coping mechanism after the event. However, people with PTSD become “stuck” in their trauma or traumas because the event has been processed primarily on only one side of the brain.
Agitation in crowds. Trauma survivors experience anxiety and agitation in crowds. The stimulation of noise and movement tells their brain to scan for danger and a means of escape. Their brain slips into hyper vigilant mode as a means of protection, making it nearly impossible for them to relax or enjoy a simple conversation.
So what’s the solution? How can trauma survivors handle stress-filled holidays?
Know your triggers and get creative. Are big crowds tough for you? Then consider asking a friend to video your child’s recital or church drama so you can watch it at home in private. Make the event a family celebration you can view together. Can’t manage the mall without a meltdown? Shop online or ask a friend to do it for you.
Pre-plan your coping strategies. Give yourself permission to leave events early. Think through how you’ll manage stressful scenarios and how you’ll recognize when it’s time to head home. If you struggle with alcohol or food addiction, plan how you’ll eat in moderation or handle the temptation to drink.
Look for alternative ways to celebrate. Let’s face it, family gatherings can be tough for anybody under any conditions. Give yourself permission to Skype in to the celebration. Or set time limits to get in and out within an hour. Or suggest that you stop by to contribute in a particular way (bring dessert or appetizers) that allows you to be present and then make a gracious exit.
Create new rituals that give you a sense of significance and purpose. Perhaps you don’t want to decorate this year–consider, instead, how you might help with a celebration at a nursing home, homeless shelter, or a hospitalized family separated by illness (call your local children’s hospital for ideas).
Focus on people in need. One of the best ways tocreate significance from your loss is by investing in someone else. Work with homeless vets. Spend time with trafficked or battered women or those who are living in shelters in your community. The possibilities are limitless.
Create a support network. Line up your best advocates and accountability partners to help you walk through tough events and even hang out with you. Be sure you’ve got someone on your list that you feel free to call 24/7.
Focus on positive self-talk. Those of us who struggle with PTSD tend to default to black-and-white thinking. The truth is that things don’t “always” have to be the way they’ve been in the past. You can change, and you have the power to make that change positive.
Engage in behaviors that build resilience. Research shows that people build resilience as they 1) pursue an active coping style of facing their fears, managing their emotions, and problem-solving; 2) engage in physical exercise; 3) cultivate a positive outlook; 4) develop and live by meaningful principles; 5) seek social support; and 6) look for good in bad situations.
Trauma changes us. Things will never be the same. But life can be good…even great as we press forward toward growth and resilience.