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Trauma Therapist’s Guide to Navigating the Holidays

The holidays are thought to be a time of togetherness and joy. What happens when the very things that are supposed to make you happy, actually bring up feelings of panic and pain? Trauma survivors often experience this very thing! Those that have experienced trauma thrive on routine, are overloaded by loud sounds, crowds, and lights. And sometimes they have damaged relationships with the very families that they are supposed to go see.

The holidays bring up many of those triggers. It makes sense that they may bring with them a trauma response. As a trauma therapist, I see many different reactions to the holidays, spanning from avoiding the holidays altogether, to deciding to go home only to later regret that decision. There is no WRONG choice when it comes to the holidays. The goal is just to make an informed decision that is the best decision for you at the time. After all, the holidays can be chaotic, to say the least. Let careful planning create a different experience for you this holiday season!

6 Ways to Not Let Your Trauma History Ruin Another Holiday

1. Identify Triggers

When I say trigger, I am talking about something that happens that brings up an unwanted feeling or response. This could mean seeing a past abuser, visiting a home that you haven’t been to in many years, being around drunk or unpredictable people, or even smells that remind you of a trauma event. Literally, any person, place, situation, pet, or event can be a trigger, so looking at what has created sadness, anger, or withdrawal in the past, is an important part of finding ways to better manage those situations to avoid having the same response that you have always had. After all, you can’t change something until you know what the problem is!

2. Coping Skills

Once you find your triggers, you are better prepared to intervene. What things have you done in the past that have helped you feel better once you have been triggered? One of the most common coping skills for trauma is grounding. Grounding helps you become mindful of your surroundings and helps you bring yourself back to the here and now. You can do this by noticing the temperature of the room, noticing how your body feels in the chair you are sitting in, or how your feet feel on the ground.

You can listen to the sounds around you, and try to find different objects in your visual field. Some people play a game and attempt to find a certain number of sights, sounds, and smells. Begin to pay attention to your breathing. Is it shallow? Do you need to focus on slowing it down? Smells are also an important part of bringing you to a certain place and time, and many people find it helpful to be prepared with a certain smell (e.g. an essential oil, bubble bath smell, or cinnamon stick) or taste (e.g. strong mint or gum).

Grounding is similar to mindfulness, in that it helps you to focus on what is going on around you in the here and now, instead of feeling bad about the past or worrying about the future. It is helpful when someone is becoming anxious or having a panic attack. Some people find it helpful to write themselves notes reminding them who they are and that there are safe, as a way to bring them back to the present. Ideally, you will practice these skills when you are calm, and when you are stressed, to help you be prepared for when you need them.

3. Get Into Therapy or Step Up Sessions

If you are not someone who is already seeing a therapist and you know that you are triggered by the holiday season, this may be the time to enter treatment. If you already have a therapist, check in with him/her about their holiday hours. Will he/she be in the office during that time? Is he/she available to meet more frequently during those weeks? Having support is one of the most important parts of getting through the holidays without a backslide. If getting into therapy is just not a possibility right now, identifying a safe friend or family member, who is not triggering, and will be available to support you more often during the holiday time can be a big help!

Alternatively, even the most well-meaning friends are not available to you 24-7. Having a backup plan is a good idea. A quick Google search of local crisis lines, “warm” talk lines, even crisis text lines, will get you a few numbers to call/text in an emergency. Contrary to what many people believe, you do not have to be imminent suicidal to use a crisis line. They are out there to help people just like you. If they are unable to provide as much support as you are looking for, they are often able to pass on additional resources you’re not aware of!

4. Decide What Kind of Holiday You Want

There is no rule that the holidays have to be a certain way. If your version of a happy holiday this year is to take some time to yourself at home with your dog, then how can we make that happen? If you do decide to visit family or friends for the holidays, listen to your gut and think about your motivation for doing so. Is it because the people you are going to spend time with bringing you happiness and support? If so, GREAT!!

If not, is it because you feel obligated or do not know how to say no? Because these reasons could end up with another disappointing holiday season, filled with more stressors, and a big dash of regret. If you are having a hard time deciding which choice is better for you, sometimes a PRO/CONs list can help you gain the clarity you are looking for. Being able to see on paper all of the evidence for and against your two choices is a good way to figure out where your true motivation lies.

5. Prep

If you do decide to put yourself first and not attend your usual functions, think about what you will say in advance. Letting people down can be difficult. Once you have decided what kind of holiday you want, you shouldn’t let other people stand in the way of that. Having a predetermined neutral response can help you avoid going back on your own wishes because of an uncomfortable interaction. It can also help save you from the inevitable slew of questions that may arise about “WHY?”

The second part to preparing is to make sure you have planned ahead for either your trip or staying home. Thanksgiving day isn’t the time to try to figure out what you are going to do with your downtime at home, or what you will eat since everything will be closed. It is also not the time to try to figure out what your day with friends or family will look like. It is more difficult to identify potential pitfalls. The skills you will use to help you through when you are being “spontaneous”.

6. Self-care

This term is thrown around a lot in our society, but that is because of how important it really is. Finding a way to take care of yourself during the holidays is of the utmost importance. Should you limit visits with certain people to avoid conflict, or feeling overwhelmed? Do you need to plan out what you will do after leaving a certain person’s home to decompress and regain your emotional balance? Are you needing to schedule in time for yourself to take a hot shower or bath, or to get in that morning jog to put you in the best head space to take on the big day? No matter what you need to do, please take time to do it this holiday season, to take care of yourself!

If you are a loved one are struggling during this holiday season, please reach out to schedule an appointment! People often wait until things get “unbearable” before coming in. The trouble with that is that all of that time, things are getting worse and worse in your life. Don’t wait until things get to that point. Make positive changes in your life now!

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Dr. Crecraft is a licensed psychologist. She is a trauma specialist, transitions expert, and family disorder healer. Her specialties include emotion regulation, healthy boundaries, and moving on from your past.

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