How To Get Through the Holidays Without More Trauma On The Body

We’re through Thanksgiving and have Christmas on the way. How are you handling the holiday season so far? How is your family handling the holiday season?

Did anything come up for you before or after Thanksgiving?  

What had you wanted to happen this Thanksgiving? What was your emotional response to it not being what you had hoped?

It isn’t uncommon for those with histories of trauma (no matter what the source of trauma is) to experience various emotions during the holidays that they feel they shouldn’t be feeling.  

During the holidays, those with histories of trauma tend to feel a range of emotions such as, loneliness, anger, anxiety, and depression. These are very common emotions for those who are still carrying remnants of their past traumas within their bodies and nervous systems.

Awareness of Holiday Trauma Triggers and Anniversaries

Traumatic times in one’s life can get associated with a time of year, so when that anniversary or time approaches, one can feel the tension building inside.

Anniversary reactions for PTSD are a well-known phenomenon, but recognizing that it’s happening, let alone preventing it, t are not well-known!

Some of us may have memories of holidays gone bad. This helps us understand why we have an anniversary reaction every holiday. During childhood it may have been a time of more emotional chaos in the home, family members getting overly intoxicated, physical or sexual abuse by a certain extended family who would come to visit. Whatever it may have been, it was enough to create that association between the trauma and that time of year.  

Even for those who have attachment trauma and don’t have any specific memory of their trauma, holidays tend to cause a similar anniversary reaction.  

Not understanding that the holidays are causing these anniversary trauma reactions, a person will continue to repeat the same emotional and behavior patterns every year, as well as the same hurtful coping mechanisms.  

Continuing the same patterns results in the body reexperiencing the trauma every year, further compounding the anniversary trauma reaction the following year. It can feel like a train that’s derailing, but you can’t stop it!  

Realizing you can’t stop or control your emotional and behavior patterns around the holidays  is how you can recognize that it’s as an anniversary trauma reaction. When our reactions are not something we can control, despite everything we try to do, we have to move to acceptance to start to heal.  

Acceptance of My Trauma Body

Accepting that one might still have trauma stored in them that can get triggered at any time can be a hard process to grasp! I don’t want to be this way! I don’t want to have these reactions and coping mechanisms! I don’t want to accept it!  

It’s a process to get from the stage of awareness to acceptance. However, after one accepts the past, the effect it will have on their brain and body, and their current state of where they are in their healing process, can help them to make different choices that will support their continued healing rather than just adding to their trauma.

Another option, after awareness, is to shame and beat oneself up for being the way that they are. That’s been a common pattern they’ve done in the past, but it hasn’t helped them heal either. Going to acceptance after awareness allows one to make choices that will support one’s health, healing, and facilitate real lasting change in their body.

Here are some healthy choices that a person who’s healing from trauma can make during the holidays. I encourage you to choose at least a few to support your healing from trauma this holiday season.  

Choices to Support Trauma Healing During the Holidays

  1. Make Sleep a Priority: Sleep is the primary way the body recovers and restores itself. Excuse yourself from the late night get-togethers. Avoid the temptation to stay up late to get cooking done or presents wrapped.

When you cut into your sleep, not only do you prevent your body from recovering from the previous day, but sleep deprivation is going to lower your threshold for stress. Little things will start to irritate and overwhelm you. This will put your body right back into your trauma zone.

By making sleep a priority, you can keep your body far away from the edge of your body being overwhelmed and reaching your trauma zone.   

2. Step Away: Set your phone alarm for every few hours to step away so that you can be alone and check in with your body.

Taking a break and walk away, whether you think you need it or not, because as part of having a trauma body, you may not be fully aware of how you’re feeling when you’re surrounded by others. Are there places of tension? The stomach is often a place where trauma shows up – is there a knot in your stomach?  

No matter what the source is that is causing you to feel overwhelmed, a body can always deal with it better when there is more space between us and the perceived threat. Step away from the family, the group, or your thoughts if you are by yourself.  

3. Eat More Protein and Healthy Fats: We’re never our best selves when we’re either on a sugar high or coming off the sugar high! Skip the desserts until at least late in the day and go for the high protein and healthy fats.  

A diet higher in protein and healthy fats will help stabilize your brain chemicals and can help keep your blood sugar stable. Blood sugar levels that are going all over the place can cause feelings of anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, and fatigue.   

In fact, if you’re having sugar cravings and are finding it hard to pass by the desserts, juices, or carbohydrate heavy foods is a common sign that you are stressed and coping with sugar. This is a natural but unhealthy way to cope with stress, as among other things, sugar binds receptors in the brain that numb emotional stress and pain (1).  

4. Let Go of Expectations and Should’s: Those with histories of trauma often guess at what is normal. Not knowing what normal is for families and holidays, we can create expectations of what it should be and how it should feel. We try to create the perfect holiday every year, or perhaps remain passive and feel lonely or bitter when what we wanted didn’t happen.

Those with histories of trauma often live in the “should” world.Everything they do around the holidays is because they “should.”  

  • “I should spend time with the family.”  
  • “I should buy the kids more gifts than last year.”
  • “I should have a big family dinner.”  
  • “I should invite everyone in the family because they would feel bad if they didn’t get an invitation.”

One of the best things you can do to start changing your holiday patterns is to let go of the expectations and should’s. Make it a goal for the Holidays this year to keep yourself in a place of connection, calm strength, and sanity. If expectations and should’s would get you out of this place, let them go!  

5. Look for Ways You Use Coping Mechanisms: Similar to sugar cravings to help cope with stress, we all have coping mechanisms we’ve developed since childhood to deal with stress. These coping mechanisms help the body survive by taking the edge off the overwhelming, by making it smaller, and by making it more manageable. However, many coping mechanisms are still coming from an unhealed place in us and have negative consequences to our health, life, and relationships later.

Coping mechanisms can include substance use like alcohol, smoking, marijuana, or other substances, but can also be things like isolating oneself, withdrawing, sexually acting out, over exercising, controlling people, places and things. More subtle coping mechanisms can also be getting sick as the body shuts down physically in response to feeling emotionally overwhelmed.

As always, the first step is becoming aware of your patterns and coping mechanisms. Once you’re aware, then you can respond differently when you feel the desire to use one of these coping mechanisms. The desire to fall back into old habits or coping mechanisms means that your body feels like something is overwhelming and needs to tone it down. If you can step back and prevent things from becoming overwhelming, you can protect your body from feeling like it needs to use an old coping mechanism.  

6. Establish Boundaries and Renegotiate Along the Way: Boundaries are a great way to prevent the holidays from triggering old stuff and becoming emotionally overwhelming. Boundaries can be established in the areas of budget, time, and space.  

Throughout the holiday season, these boundaries may need to be renegotiated if something changes. For example, you may have an unexpected inflow of cash, and the budget boundaries can be renegotiated. An activity may come up that you would really like to do, so you look at your time boundaries and see what can be renegotiated to accommodate the new activity, but not tap into your physical or emotional reserves.  

Renegotiating boundaries is not compromising boundaries! It’s making adjustments based on new information or new resources that will help you even better achieve your goal to remain calm, connected, and sane this holiday.  

Before you start renegotiating, let’s set some boundaries to help your nervous system this year!

Budget Boundaries

Finances can be a trigger for many with histories of trauma, because it touches on our security in life and meeting our basic needs for survival. Yet, many make financial decisions during the holidays that sabotage their healing from trauma. Perhaps they’re used to the excitement of stress or are too caught up in the “But I should,” but just the possibility of not meeting our basic living needs -rent (shelter), food, water, (dependable) transportation, clothes – is a big stress on the body! Do a holiday budget to know exactly how much you have to spend on gifts while keeping yourself in a position of financial security. 

Time Boundaries

Time boundaries are also very important during the holidays to not overextend your physical or emotional reserves. Decide which activities you will need to maintain yourself for in a place of physical and emotional health for the holidays, and then put boundaries to protect the time for those activities. It’s common to let unimportant activities or friends and family disrupt the things that are of high importance, like sleep, sunshine, exercise, play, and work. Rather than let the disruptions happen and then compromise on the things that are of most important to your health and healing, set up those boundaries.

Space Boundaries

Space boundaries are similar to time boundaries. Choose which friends and family you can be around and remain in a place of calm sanity! Perhaps you tend to isolate, and space boundaries for you need to be limiting the time you spend alone and deciding which social groups to attend.

Communicating Your Boundaries to Difficult Friends and Family Members

It’s one thing to figure out what healthy boundaries are, but another to know how to communicate those boundaries to others who will not receive them well.

Having healthy boundaries and communicating those in a healthy way is typically something that doesn’t come naturally to those of us with histories of trauma! I wanted to include a quick note about communicating these boundaries you’re going to make this holiday season.  

When communicating boundaries, I rely heavily on the slogan “Say what you mean, but don’t say it mean.” I say what I mean by communicating my boundary clearly. I don’t say it mean by acknowledging how this might affect them and normalizing their reaction.  

How does this come together? Here is one way I’ve communicated boundaries:

“I’m going to do things differently this year. I’m going to take a step back from all the gift buying. I know gifts have always been an important part of Christmas, and so I know this might mess up your plans and might be hurtful. It isn’t my intention to hurt you, but for this year, I am going to take a step back from buying gifts for people.”

Unless they are solid in their recovery and healing, there will usually be a strong reaction, whether now or later. It helps me to see their reaction in person as they’re feeling hurt or feeling out of control and are trying to maintain that feeling like their world is safe. Whatever their reaction is, I kindly and firmly maintain my boundary by acknowledging that they’re feeling hurt, and kindly repeating that it’s not my intention to hurt them, but that this year, I’m going to step back from buying gifts. I will usually repeat this 2-3 times, but if they continue to argue or repeat that I don’t care about them or that I just want to mess everything up, I physically get up and leave with a “I know this is not what you wanted, and I’m sorry for that.”

If communicating boundaries is something you struggle with, that is very normal and I recommend reading a book like Codependent No More by Melody Beattie for more ideas.  

7. See a Therapist During the Holidays: It can be very helpful to see a therapist over the holidays. The way to get the best out of the experience and use it for growth and healing is to pick specific things for them to help you with.  

Topics that people have brought to a therapist to help them with during the holidays include:

  • figuring out what healthy boundaries would be in my situation
  • helping communicate and maintain healthy boundaries
  • processing various emotional states before they become overwhelming  
  • relapse prevention for substance or behavioral addictions
  • processing grief from losses associated with past holidays
  • helping me see my emotional and relationship patterns during the holidays
  • giving accountability for taking care of myself and maintaining boundaries

Summary

After having experienced holiday anniversary reactions most of my life, I know how important it is to break those patterns and give your brain and body a chance to rewire its response to the holidays. The holidays shouldn’t put you back into survival and overload state every year!

If you’re the parent of a child with attachment trauma, it’s even more important to have boundaries with outside family members. It’s normal to think “I should,” but often trying to do the normal holiday things will traumatize you as you try to deal with your child’s emotional and behavioral responses.  

Whether it’s you, your child, or your spouse, it may be best to plan for a really quiet holiday season this year. Remove all the distractions and step back from all the busyness and make this the year a year of really learning to see and understand any holiday anniversary trauma reactions you might have.  

I encourage you to journal or discuss the following questions with someone you trust if you’re serious about changing your trauma reactions this holiday season.  

 

Reflection Questions:

Do you recognize that a holiday anniversary trauma reaction is happening in you or your family?

What of the 7 ideas above do you think would be most helpful to get through the holidays calm, connected, and sane?  

Are you afraid of other people’s reaction to you setting limits on your time, home space, and finances?

What would you need to help communicate your boundaries clearly but kindly?

How would you and your family’s physical and emotional health be different this year if you did things differently this holiday season?

Which boundary do you think would make the most difference to help change your patterns this year?

Are you willing to do it???

 

To Health and Healing Even During the Holidays,

 

Dr. Aimie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References: Colantuoni C, Schwenker J, McCarthy J, Rada P, Ladenheim B, Cadet JL, Schwartz GJ, Moran TH, Hoebel BG. “Excessive Sugar Intake Alters Binding to Dopamine and Mu-Opioid Receptors in the Brain.”  Neuroreport.  Nov 16 2001; 12(16): 3549-52.

Beattie, Melody (1986). Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring For Yourself.  Hazelden Foundation, Center City, MN.

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