Surviving the Holidays

By Laura Thien

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As the holidays approach, I'm reminded on a regular basis of how stressful this time of year can be for those who have experienced trauma. This may be the case especially if the trauma occurred within a family system—where a family has been a source of additional trauma through unhelpful responses, unhealthy boundaries, etc., and if trauma is connected with a holiday, in some way.

I wanted to share a few practical suggestions for consideration if you struggle with this, while promoting empathy and compassion for others who face these challenges.

1. Set healthy boundaries, as you need to. Don't continue to justify, argue, defend, or explain them.

Boundaries might look like avoiding a family gathering where you are put in a position to have unhealthy interactions or avoiding a setting where you know you might be otherwise triggered. You do not have to sacrifice your mental and emotional well-being. Give yourself permission to change your mind about holiday plans if this becomes an issue.

Conversely, if we have a family member or friend who needs to set a boundary or change a plan, let's remember that this may be a very healthy thing for them. We can often—knowingly or unknowingly—guilt them or emotionally manipulate them into doing what would make us happy instead of considering what is healthy and reasonable for them. Encourage your family member of friend to take care of themselves, and their family, if applicable.

2. Be aware that your sense of smell can bring about the most vivid memories.

Sometimes holiday scents are the most triggering. Be aware of where you might encounter these scents and consider countering it by finding a safe scent you can spray on a scarf, carry in a oil roller, or have in a small bottle. You can use this to ground yourself if you are panicking.

3. Don't buy gifts you can't afford in an effort to prove love or because you feel guilty to meet someone else's expectations.

Be aware that sometimes gift-giving was used as a grooming process for a person's trauma or was otherwise used in an unhealthy way. Gift-giving or gift-receiving can be difficult for people who received gifts with an ulterior motive and don't have healthy associations attached to gifting.

4. Enlist support.

Spend time with family or friends who are safe and supportive. Let them know when you are having a difficult time. Consider making new traditions with these people that create a healthy sense of the holiday.

5. Remind yourself of your coping skills.

Sometimes when our senses are overwhelmed and we are hopping from one activity to the next, we forget what we know. Slow down and think about the skills you have acquired and know. Give yourself permission to use these skills. Reach out to a support person, your therapist, or a supportive organization if you need help building your coping skills or being reminded of the ones you already have.

Ultimately, give yourself permission to do what is healthy and safe. Give yourself patience and compassion when you feel frustrated about how you feel or what you are experiencing.

Laura Thien, MSW, LISW-CP, is a GRACE Board Member and a licensed social worker in clinical practice at a rape crisis and NCA-accredited Children’s Advocacy Center. She has been working with survivors of child abuse, sexual assault, and other trauma for over ten years in a variety of capacities, including adoptions, foster care, and clinical practice.