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5 Strategies for Managing Trauma Triggers Over the Holidays
By Sara Schapmann
For many people, the winter holidays are truly the “most wonderful time of the year.” For others, this season is absolutely the worst time of year — full of traditional sounds, scents and sentiments that bring up sad memories, old hurts, and triggers for anxiety, depression, addiction and, quite often, trauma and PTSD.
According to trauma consultant and author Laurie Kahn, MA, MFA, LCPC, people who have experienced childhood trauma may have complex, mixed feelings around the holidays. “Often the same people who loved them are the ones who hurt them and frightened them,” she says. The prospect of visiting family, therefore, can bring up feelings of ambivalence, shame, dread and fear — or even longing for what might have been. Such feelings can be trauma triggers. So can other family issues, like being around family members who drink too much or have unpredictable moods, making some kind of blowup at family gatherings a distinct possibility.
You can’t always avoid family get-togethers or make the holidays go away, but rather than becoming like “Scrooge” and allowing yourself to get ambushed by difficult memories (or relatives) and overwhelmed by negative feelings, try using some of these five trigger management strategies to help you head off trauma over the holidays.
#1 Step up your therapy sessions.
Whether or not you have previously undergone treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder or other trauma, the weeks leading up to the holidays are a good time to reach out to a therapist or treatment center to schedule some therapy sessions to reinforce your recovery and explore new coping tools you can use for trigger management. Talk therapy and support groups can be very helpful, but you might also choose this time of year to explore therapies you haven’t previously utilized. Splurge on a few sessions of treatment options such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Experiencing, equine therapy, art therapy, psychodrama or adventure therapy.
#2 Draw up a map of all potential triggers, along with coping strategies for each.
Things start gearing up for the holidays in early November, but you can preempt trauma triggers by taking time in late October to write down all of the potentially triggering people, places and things you might encounter from November through January. You can list problematic people, scenarios, environments and other triggers in a column on the left, and then use the column on the right to make a list of coping mechanisms that will help you avoid or deal with each trigger. This mapping exercise can also help you recognize holiday triggers you haven’t previously considered, and this heightened awareness can help inform other areas in which you may need to protect and nurture yourself.
For example, if Thanksgiving at your family home is a minefield of trauma triggers, the coping strategy for this one might be to visit friends on this day and make excuses to your family. Alternately, you may visit your family but arrange to either depart early because you have another “event” to attend, or keep a friend or other helper available by phone that day so you can call them to talk through issues that come up. Similar strategies can help you avoid or get through the annual holiday party at work, emotional reunions with old pals, and more.
#3 Plan the ultimate “un-holiday.”
If you aren’t obligated to “make the season bright” for children who look forward to all the trappings of a traditional holiday, you can break with tradition and make the season more about catching up on the things you love most. Create a meaningful annual ritual for yourself. If you are a hobbyist or crafter, designate the holidays as the time of year when you devote extra time to doing those things. Stay home and get busy (or un-busy) creating things with your hands, or recharging your batteries by catching up on your reading or favorite TV shows. If you love travel and have the budget and freedom to do so, get out of town and explore another environment. People from many other cultures don’t celebrate the same holidays, which makes it possible to choose a destination free of Christmas chaos.
#4 Rehearse an acceptable response to, “What are you doing over the holidays?”
Since the holidays are the time of year when most people tend to travel and visit family or go on family excursions, it is common for others to assume you’ll be doing the same and ask what you’ll be up to over the holidays. This question may be a stress or trauma trigger for you. If so, come up with a couple of brief, acceptable answers you can give to reduce a potential stumbling block to just a tiny hurdle you can glide over. If you are planning to stay home and avoid holiday travel and get-togethers, trauma therapist Sara Staggs LICSW, MPH, suggests you can say something like you’re “getting some much needed rest,” “catching up on personal projects” or “spending time with friends,” which is true even if your friends are crafts, books and movies.
#5 Bolster your self-care with additional coping strategies.
You may not be able to avoid family gatherings or other events over the holidays, but you can employ strategies that help you stay grounded before, during and after attending them. Besides abstaining from any foods or drinks that might trigger you, there are measures you can take to ease yourself through the situation.
If you know that a certain relative will say or do something that pushes your buttons, plan ahead by bringing along a coping tool to help minimize your reaction to this trigger. For example, carry or wear a meaningful item that you can hold in your hand to calm yourself during tense moments — perhaps a locket on a chain, a pocket stone, or a piece of paper that has a calming message like “breathe” written on it. These tokens can serve as reminders to step out of the room and reground yourself, take a few deep breaths, and choose to react differently to things. It can also help to know that after the event, you can decompress and soothe yourself by taking a warm bath, lighting some candles, playing soft music or reading from a book of meditations or inspirational quotes.
Last but not least, share your burden with someone else. Fight the urge to isolate, which can worsen trauma symptoms. As the holidays approach, reach out to a trusted friend, sponsor or family member and let them know that this is a tough time of year for you. Don’t be afraid to tell them you might need some daily mood-lifting texts or silly messages from them, or perhaps a weekly phone call or chat over coffee. These can boost your mood and help you find some joy and peace in the holidays despite past troubles.
How to Manage Trauma Triggers During the Holidays. Promises, December 2016. Promises.com
Recognizing Holiday Triggers of Trauma. Katie Volk. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 2013. https://www.samhsa.gov/homelessness-programs-resources/hpr-resources/recognizing-holiday-triggers
How to Deal with Holiday Triggers. After Trauma with Sara Staggs, LICSW, MSW MPH. Psych Central, December 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/red-room/emtama-lane-psydem-why-pt_b_4311983.html
A Holiday Blueprint for Tackling Trauma and Anxiety. Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC. Good Therapy, December 2013. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/holiday-blueprint-for-tackling-trauma-anxiety-1212135