Holiday Trauma Triggers

Man depression during christmas holiday

There are many articles written at this time of year that highlight how holidays that are supposed to be about love, connection, family and fun often are experienced by many as times of isolation, sadness, anxiety and grief. For example on the website Healthline the author states that, “ Holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, but for some people they are anything but.

Depression may occur at any time of the year, but the stress and anxiety during the months of November and December may cause even those who are usually content to experience loneliness and a lack of fulfillment.

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), a government agency, notes that there are many more helpline calls during the holidays as people experience these lows and times of isolation and desperation that can make them suicidal.

The National Alliance on Mental Health states that 64% of people with mental illness report holidays make their conditions worse.

While this may be a phenomenon that can happen to anyone, I think there is a probable connection between these symptoms of increased stress and depression that may be linked to unresolved trauma, especially trauma that occurs in childhood.

Worried black young woman sitting in the living room at home during christmas holiday

Consider how holidays can often bring out not only the best but also the worst in families. The stress can lead to anger and unfair demands on all family members, disappointment when things don’t go as planned or fantasized from Hallmark cards and movies that depict the holidays as a time of carefree, loving, joy-filled moments. When early stress-filled memories are created in the minds and brains of children, these can be triggered as the holidays approach, resulting in a repeat of the original feelings of deep stress, helplessness, loss, shame and fear.

Sometimes the memories may be clear in which there was a family argument, outbursts of anger, combined with violence, screaming, accusations of all kinds of family misdemeanors, people storming out and announcing they are forever severing their ties with their family! All this may eventually be remedied once the adults calm down but in the minds of children, the realities of these moments of fear, helplessness, abandonment and loss can be deeply ingrained in their memories, especially in those unconscious, implicit memories that are so active in the early months and years of a child’s life.

Trauma Brain word cloud on a white background.

When memories are stored in unconscious, implicit memory banks, they can be hard to retrieve leading that grown adult to experiencing flashbacks that can be hard to understand; quick snapshots of moments of trauma that are hard to get into focus because they were created before a child could really make sense of things. The adult can then be triggered and not know what the specific triggers are. The change in the weather that comes in November and December can be a trigger, holiday music, the smells of pine or turkey in the oven, visuals of specific decorations, the many sensations of walking through a mall or watching a classic holiday movie. Anything like these thoughts can put the adult in a place of dissociation or hyperarousal which can then bring on feelings of depression, anxiety, fear, helplessness and shame that originally happened back in time when that adult was a child. The person can feel like they are crazy, unhealthy, lacking self-control, and perhaps feel shame over being ungrateful for all the beauty of the season.

Being able to appreciate that one’s traumatic past maybe haunting them even more during the holidays can help normalize the thoughts, feelings, sensations and even behaviors when that person is triggered at this time of year. It can be important to figure out how you can claim or reclaim your power to be in the present during the holidays, to do what you can to not allow past traumas to trigger you so easily. You can decide to create new holiday traditions that bring you joy, or at least some degree of happiness. Making even subtle changes from what was experienced in the past may be helpful. It’s also important to connect with friends who can support you and allow you to grieve and share some of your pain.

If you feel strong enough, you can take time to journal some of your childhood experiences so that you can bear witness to the realities of the traumas that happened out of your control when you were a child. You don’t have to remember exactly what happened and can take shattered pieces of memories and at least write them down. You can also draw pictures of what you remember. All this needs to be done carefully so you’re not re-traumatizing yourself. If attempting this or even considering this brings you anxiety, it may be wise to consider therapeutic intervention that will allow you to work through some of these past issues.

While the holidays were meant to be times of celebration, joy and family connecting, for many of us they carry more pain than happiness, more grief, loss and isolation than that sense of celebrating and connecting. You are not alone. We know that more than half the population has experienced at least one adverse childhood experience and many have experienced significant enough traumas to lead them to high levels of fear, pain, anxiety and other related symptoms.

If this resonates with you, you deserve to find ways to figure out your own specific trauma history and its connection to painful experiences around holidays. I hope you will take the time to reflect on this and look for ways to address those unresolved traumas that make holidays difficult for you.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Think about and notice how you experience the holidays. Are these times of joy, happiness and create in you a sense of gratitude or do you have negative feelings and sensations?
  2. How much do you remember of your childhood experiences around the holidays? As you think about these, which ones bring you joy and excitement and which are more about feeling upset, scared, anxious or shamed?
  3. To what extent do you have or could you create a network of people who might help you work through some of these less than happy reactions to the holidays?
  4. To what extent might you be willing to be a resource for others who are struggling at the holidays, willing to hear their pain and allow them to share whatever stories they might wish to share? After all, this is the season for which we are to show our thanks and gratitude and to experience love in its many forms. Sometimes we are on the receiving end and sometimes we need to make sure we are also on the giving end.