The holiday season is stressful for everyone. But for many with Complex PTSD and dissociative disorders, it can be the absolute worst time of year. While there are often bright spots, there are unique struggles that trauma survivors undeniably face as the year comes to a close. Whether out and about, or gathering with family, the holidays can be so loud and busy and overstimulating – in other words, a nightmare for anyone with a posttraumatic condition. But there are countless hidden things survivors can often struggle with that many may not even realize – including survivors with a different history. Many of you will have to face family or extended family that were the source of your trauma. Others will have to gather around unsupportive or toxic family/friends who don’t value your mental health or personal wellbeing. For many survivors, the holidays are actual anniversaries of past trauma or violence. The holidays are also an unforgiving battleground to the many who struggle with food, disordered eating, and/or addictions. To add insult to injury, an upsetting number of trauma survivors are grappling with chronic physical health issues, too – most of which came as a result of their trauma whether they realize it or not. They’re going to be in pain — wanting to engage but unable. The list goes on and on – and, we know just how hard many of you will be fighting just to stay above the water. We want to help however we can.
Because so many of you will have very different holiday plans, different trauma histories that will involve very different triggers, and varying levels of safety or stages in recovery — when it comes to managing your symptoms, there can be no one-size-fits all guide to getting through. But, there are, however, some universal things that remain true for most everyone. We care very deeply about your health and wellbeing and don’t want you to feel like you’re going at it alone. So, here are some of our suggestions to help get you through the holiday season safely, with your sanity intact, and knowing someone has your back. Take what applies to you and leave the rest, and please feel free to comment some of YOUR suggestions as well to keep extending support to our community of survivors.
OUR LIST TO GET THROUGH THE HOLIDAYS:
Stay grounded. Remaining grounded is your first and strongest line of defense to any of the things you’ll face during the holidays. If you aren’t grounded, none of your coping skills will be as effective. Keep textured items in your pockets, bags, and/or car. Carry a notecard on you or in your phone that can remind you of the date, that you’re safe and an adult now, as well as any other orienting details that are important to you. Keep your feet on the floor whenever you can. Try to refrain from staring off or zoning out when things get too dull (or too heated). Keep your phone on you to play music or engage in interactive apps whenever you feel yourself drifting. Look around the room – take note of all the pretty things that catch your eye as you look about. Talk or engage with someone if you can; vocalize in some way if you’re alone. Step out and wash your hands or face in cool water. Go outside for a bit to reinvigorate yourself with fresh air or cold temperatures. Anything you can to stay present in the here and now! (We have 101 Grounding Techniques right here for ya if you need them!)
Remember: You have a voice. This is your life, your safety, your sanity. You matter. You are allowed to set boundaries for yourself, say no, change your mind, make choices that honor you. If you don’t want to visit with someone, or know seeing them will trigger or stress you too greatly – you DO NOT HAVE TO GO. We understand that for some of you, particularly those who still live with unsafe people, saying no would actually put you in danger. We understand that necessity and do not want to encourage you to put yourself in harm’s way. But for those of you whom it just feels scary or would make you feel guilty, ask yourself if those temporary feelings are more important than the endless, unpredictable amounts of distress spending time with those people would cause you. Use your voice. Set boundaries. You are an adult and are allowed to say no now and have it be respected.
Plan ahead. One of the best strategies to prevent an utter disaster is to plan ahead in the most detailed way possible. List what kinds of things you’re going to do before to make sure you go in to any stressful event confidently and steadily. Describe the things you’re going to do for yourself during to make sure you’re grounded, level and calm. Then, be incredibly specific about what you’re going to do after to decompress and unwind, and then [most importantly!] what you’ll do for self-care. This is called a “Before/During/After Plan” or BDA.
Don’t forget the basics. It sounds painfully simple, but it’s so easy to forget. Take your medications. Eat well. Stay hydrated. Force yourself to rest your body and mind even if you cannot sleep. Don’t neglect your physical health. These things are as much your foundation as being grounded is. Forgetting any of these basic needs can make you more vulnerable to symptoms, which can lead to a full unravelling later.
Internal communication. Those of you who have internal parts (DID/OSDD) will need to make sure you’re doing a lot of internal communication. Acknowledge with one another the difficult, painful, scary, or triggering things that you’re going to be facing. Validate those feelings and fears with each other. Then, together, plan ahead for how you’ll work together and arrange yourselves for each event on your calendar. Also discuss what you might do to honor one another, perhaps even share gifts if that feels right. (..even if those gifts to one another are as simple as letting a part watch a movie at home later, or color a picture. It doesn’t have to be a material present 🙂 ) Acknowledging and validating what’s so painful about these holidays will make you less likely to be blindsided by traumatic material mid-holiday celebration if someone inside encounters a trigger you never saw coming.
Incentivize. It’s no secret that many survivors struggle with self-harming or other self-destructive behaviors or addictions. Others are warring with their absolutely devastating depression, OCD, or similarly incapacitating conditions. Get yourself a gift or other incentive that you aren’t allowed to have until January 2nd (or after each individual holiday). If you got through the whole holiday season self-harm free or were able to accomplish things you were too depressed or too afraid to do, it’s waiting for you to open when you’ve met your goal!
Let yourself grieve. It seems counterintuitive to lead yourself into painful emotions, but it makes them far less likely to bubble up just as you’re getting comfortable or having a good time. Let yourself be sad. Let yourself be angry. Let yourself grieve lost holidays or entire childhoods of happy memories. Allow yourself be upset about what your traumatic experiences have robbed you of or made more difficult. Take a moment to be angry about neglectful and/or dismissive family and friends who won’t support you the way you deserve to be supported. Once you’ve given yourself a moment to feel these things, your mind will feel freer to enjoy the holidays and less determined to remind you that it was really, really hurt by all that’s associated with them.
Take time for you. You don’t have to be “on” from Thanksgiving to January. You don’t have to be “on” morning to night on any holiday either. Take breaks. Leave the room. Take a walk outside. Sit in peace in a bedroom or unoccupied room for a moment. Those 15 minute breathers will do you and your nervous system wonders before returning to the festivities.
Support system. If you have friends or family that support you heathily, connect with them. Make it a point to fill them in on what’s going on and what’s worrying you. Plan to connect with them even if for just 5 or 10 minutes before/after holiday gatherings. We know that many therapists aren’t available during holiday weeks, so touching base with friends and family that have your back can help you feel less stranded or as if you’ve been abandoned in your weakest moments.
Breathe. Again, it sounds so simple, but you’ll be amazed how many times you’re completely overwhelmed and are actually holding your breath. Take several deep cleansing breaths every time you feel your tension meter rising.
Limit alcohol/substances. The holidays don’t make this super easy for those who like to partake, but any level of intoxication can make traumatic material just a trigger away from flooding you. …and leaving you quite defenseless against it. Try to be extra responsible during tough times – even if your whole body is zinging or feels so pressurized you’re going to burst. Going for another drink makes you far more vulnerable for everything to actually come cascading out of you – especially if you were already tense enough to ‘need’ that drink.
Remember: You do not have to stay. Just like before, your needs matter. You are not obligated to do anything you don’t want to or for longer than you desire. You do not have to feel guilty. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for why you’re leaving, where you’re going, or why you want to go so soon. You are allowed to leave early. You are being a proactive bamf by taking care of you. If you don’t think you can count on your voice to be strong enough in the moment, make plans to see someone immediately after a gathering and make it known ahead of time that you can’t stay long. Don’t have anyone free to do that with or are traveling? There are even apps that can help you get out of a situation you don’t want to be in. 🙂 Even if you have to get clever about it, you are still allowed to go when you’ve had enough. Period.
Physical safety. If you MUST visit (or already live) with unsafe people, and things escalate but you don’t feel you can leave the room, step outside, or leave entirely…. If at any moment you feel things are going to erupt into violence, apps like SafeTrek exist that will bring the police to your location without you ever making or answering a call. (This app is valuable for many other scenarios, for trauma survivors especially, and is highly recommended. It is available for iOS and Android.) You can also dial 911 yourself if you feel you can and just leave it open for an operator to listen to the chaos. Many are familiar with this, and they may be willing to send a wellness check. If you don’t feel either of those are safe options, or that a visit from police would make things less safe for you later, take some time now to brainstorm what WOULD feel safe to you. Can you make a plan with a friend that would have them call you if you text a certain word? To interrupt the chaos? To force them to hush because someone on the phone might hear them, or because you had to get up and go to another room? Do you have an ally in the family/friend group who could help you? What feels right to you? If your answer is “Just take it” (the abuse), I urge you to reconsider. You are important. You are valuable. You are worthy of basic needs: safety. You do not need to accept this or endure this any longer. You have a voice and you have a brilliant mind that can find something else. Anything else.
Conquering loneliness. Many of these tips revolve around gatherings with others. But, for some of you, much of the holiday season is actually spent alone (either by choice or circumstance). Since loneliness can breed all sorts of darkness in the mind, plan your own holiday time for you. Make the day a day that you treat yourself like you never do. Watch movies, take a bath, paint your nails, turn your music up, watch new shows on Netflix, read a book, make yourself an elaborate meal, celebrate yourself and how far you’ve come. Go ahead and make all of those slummin it with the fam jealous that you were at home having the time of your life in your PJs, coloring an adult coloring book, with Christmas cookies and tea. 😉 But, more seriously, if you really feel like it’s just going to be too hard even if you make it a fun day for you – just like those spending time with others – make a plan for the day. Outline it. What will you do before to make sure you’re at your strongest? What are you going to do during to keep yourself steady? And what will you do after to decompress and take care of yourself? Let’s hope your plan has TONS of self-care and self-treating in it. You deserve it!
Be kind to yourself. The holidays are hard. For everyone. Yes, even those who have it all together. It’s never going to be perfect. You’re likely going to make mistakes, have bad days, be a little short with someone you love, or have a day that you aren’t the most patient. You may stumble, or even completely fall apart. While we hope that doesn’t happen, it’s okay if it does. Life is a process, and every year is different. None of us get it right every time, or even most of the time. The best and only thing to do after something goes wrong is to practice some self-kindness. Cut yourself some slack and remind yourself that now, if any a time, is the time you need comfort the most…especially from yourself. Be gentle. If you wouldn’t tell one of your friends they were stupid or bad for making the exact same mistake, then you aren’t either. Breathe. It’s okay. You’re gonna be okay.