For survivors of trauma, the holidays rarely bring up the feelings written about on Hallmark cards. Often times, the holiday season brings up feelings of anxiety, depression, isolation or entrapment. This is especially true if the holiday season means feeling forced to be around someone who has caused you harm, triggers you or makes you feel unsafe.
Because humans innately desire connection to others, when you feel as though you cannot relate with the TV commercials or mall advertisements, you naturally internalize that. Then, you may begin to feel as though there is something wrong with you. “Why can’t you be happy during the holidays?”, “Why do none of the holiday cards match your childhood experiences?”, “Why do you get a pit in your stomach when you park for a family holiday dinner?”.
I am not a believer that the holidays need to be spent with biological family. Especially if your biological family played a role in your trauma. I believe that spending time with chosen family, friends or community may be more beneficial and enjoyable. The holidays are about rejuvenation and celebration of the things and people that bring you love, security and safety. So, how do you go about setting and following through with boundaries with family?
Increasing your level of self-care.
When you come from a traumatic background, your nervous system is always on higher alert than the average person. These nervous system responses go into trigger mode when we expose ourselves to the cause of our trauma, or, a similar cause and our nervous system begins to feel unsafe. A chronically high functioning nervous system can lead to fatigue, depression, high anxiety, sleeplessness and many other symptoms. Taking care of our nervous system to keep it as relaxed as possible builds our resilience for the moments we know will trigger us, making us better able to manage the effects.
Communicating your boundaries to family before the festive events.
As an adult, you now have your own voice to set boundaries in order to make your holiday season less stressful. It is helpful to establish these boundaries BEFORE the day/night of the event so everyone knows what to expect. For example, “My partner and I are starting to alternate family holiday celebrations to make more time for us to spend together”. or, “I’ll be staying with a friend over the holidays instead of with family”. You will most likely get some push-back, so having skills to manage conflict in a healthy and safe way may be helpful.
For some, the abuser may still be attending family events. Know you are allowed to decline an invitation. You are also allowed to establish boundaries on behaviours that are forced upon you that make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. You can do this by either addressing them directly (if safe) or leaving the environment.
Knowing your trigger signs
If it is safe for you to attend the family event, you may want to know your trigger signs. Understanding what happens in your body when you are triggered, can help with stopping the trigger from escalating into a fight, flight, freeze, friend or fawn mode. Knowing the early tell-tale signs such as, butterflies in your stomach, a lump in your throat, tightness in your chest or feeling like you are losing your voice provides you with important cues to your nervous systems’ state. The more aware you are of these early signs, the quicker you can make a change in your environment to bring your nervous system back into safety (or safer) mode. This may even include leaving.
Making your own traditions
As an adult, you are allowed to make your own traditions. Those traditions may not be spending time with family who you may not feel safe around. Rather, they may include calling family instead, visiting friends, going to a trip or spending the holidays alone. You also may choose to carry on, carry on a few or carry on no traditions from your family of origin.
Allowing yourself to be sad
It is completely okay to feel sad around the holidays, despite society making you feel that is not the case. You are allowed to grieve. You are allowed to cry and feel lonely. You are allowed to be sad for yourself. However, you want to create a time limit for this. Allow yourself to mourn the fact that your family may not be safe to spend time with over the holidays for a set amount of time (eg. 5- 15 minutes) and then return back to your routine. This will help ensure that this moment of grief does not become unmanageable or overwhelming.
Do something for you!
Maybe it is making your favorite food, sending holiday cards, volunteering or engaging in an activity that brings you feelings of happiness. Remember to keep your nervous system calmer. Doing something for yourself may also mean booking an appointment with a local therapist to have some support and build skills on managing triggers that may arise.
The holidays may never be picture perfect, but there are many ways to make them more manageable and include more enjoyable moments.