The Holidays and Trauma

The holidays can be a time of great stress, sadness, loneliness, and even fear.

While media ads present the holidays as a time of love and family and togetherness, for many people the holidays are anything but these things. There can be a greater chance for trauma to occur as stress builds, expectations mount, and people re-enact some of their childhood experiences that were traumatic for them.

For children instead of experiencing holidays as a time of wonderful social connections with family members, they instead can experience the many tensions that the adults around them bring to the table, some of which can become so intense as to be considered traumatizing. These are the moments when there are verbal or physical eruptions, messages that deflate a child’s sense of self and worth, that shame, mock or belittle, or that make children feel they are invisible or the cause of many of their parents’ frustrations.

Adults can benefit by appreciating the concept of reenactment.  Reenactment is the pull someone with unresolved trauma has to recreate the dynamics of a past traumatizing situation. Sometimes in the reenactment a person remains in the victim role and sometimes, often in order to try to gain some kind of power over the pain of the trauma, they reenact the perpetrator role.

For example, if childhood holidays involved episodes of yelling and various kinds of punishments, such as corporal punishment, or people storming out of the house in a rage, the person who experienced this can reenact it. They can become the frightened child who is immobilized as the sights, sounds and smells of the holiday begin to happen, and all those traumatic memories flood the brain. Or they can become the perpetrator of their childhood trauma, imitating the behaviors of whoever it was who was out of control and caused the feelings of powerlessness and fear.

The SAMHSA website [Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the U. S. Departmen

child and mother looking at each other.

t of Health and Human Services] says it well: “During the holiday season, the need for a trauma-informed approach is critical. Everywhere we turn, we’re reminded that it is supposed to be ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’ While for some that may be true, for others the holiday season is wrought with triggers such as songs, scents, and rituals. Then there is pressure to conform to particular social and familial expectations, increased presence of alcohol, and more interactions with family and friends. For those experiencing homelessness, the holidays may also serve as a reminder of what does not exist—a home in which to celebrate, cook, decorate, and rejoice. Loss, loneliness, and shame are powerful triggers.”

There is some evidence that domestic violence increases over the holidays in the US and in other countries. Sirin Kale provides more in her December 2015 article, “The Hidden Crisis of Domestic Violence over the Holidays.

Counselor counseling female counseleeIf the holidays  are reminders to you of previous traumatic experiences, it is wise to practice good self-care in order to prepare and hopefully thwart some of the overwhelming, frightening or out-of-control feelings and sensations that can emerge as a result of the memories of those traumatic experiences.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Give yourself plenty of grace whenever holiday-related memories  pop up that are frightening or uncomfortable for you. Know that you do not have to recreate any of your childhood scenes that may be connected with traumatic experiences.
  • Connect with safe people with whom you can share some of your memories in order to help you appreciate any losses of power and safety that left you with unresolved trauma. This key way to address unresolved trauma is creating a new coherent narrative.
  • Plan now. Have strategies set in your mind so you don’t have to try to make them up in the moment of stress.
  • Pay attention to nutrition and exercise. Be more mindful about eating and exercising in healthy ways.
  • Try to keep stress levels low for everyone, including yourself.
  • Create meaningful rituals. As a family come up with traditions that you can keep year after year that ensure that holidays are more about love, joy and connection rather than fear, shame or disconnection.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Bring to mind some of your early childhood memories and holidays. To what extent do they involve moments of peace, love, joy and connection versus times of stress, fear, confusion and/or disconnection?
  2. As we move into the holiday season, what are some of your feelings about family gatherings and times that are supposed to be about celebrating? For any that are painful involving strong negative feelings, what are some of the origins of those feelings?
  3. Recognize that childhoods with fear, stress and/or disconnection were not your fault. Find ways now to create quality memories for yourself and your family that are healthier and happier.