Emotional Trauma after Holidays
By Iwona S Florianowicz MSc., CCTP
Having a support system in place before the holidays is a vital step in helping you deal with strong emotions. You cannot control your past trauma; however, you can take control by planning to have someone to talk to after visiting your family or friends or after spending the holiday alone. First, acknowledge that reaching for help is not an act of weakness, it is a strength. Then assemble a list of people in your life that you can rely on in the moment of need. They may be your close friends who listen to you or a family member who understands and validate your mental and personal well-being. Plan to connect with them before and after holiday gatherings, even for 5 to 10 minutes on the phone or in person. If you have a therapist, try to book a pre and post-holiday appointment to discuss coping strategies.
You have a choice
Remember that you have a right to decide not to attend a gathering without explaining yourself. If you believe you will feel unsafe, you can set boundaries for yourself. You have the right to say no, change your mind or make choices that are right for you. If you still live with toxic people, this presents different challenges. Take control of your choices, know you can use your voice to say no, set boundaries and it be respected. If things get out of hand call 911 - remember that keeping yourself safe is a priority.
Unhealthy Ways of Coping
It is very common to develop various coping methods to numb your pain and emotions. They all can be extremely harmful to your psychological and physical well-being. Developing more healthy strategies can be profoundly empowering. Remember that alcohol is highly intoxicating and can cause traumatic material to be triggered, leaving you defenseless against it. So are drugs or marijuana as they depress your nervous system. Choose healthier options - rest well, eat well, stay hydrated and do not forget to exercise to boost endorphins (happy hormones) in your brain. Simply walking and paying attention to your surroundings is an excellent method to take your mind away from the chaos in the present situation, and it is a unique strategy to bring back your emotional equilibrium.
Grounding and Containing Yourself
If you find yourself feeling upset and unable to settle down your emotion, grounding and containment exercises are an excellent way to self-rescue from the situation. If you notice that you can't break your attention from intense arising traumatic thoughts, images, and feelings, try to connect with and focus on your surroundings (here and now) with the intention to use all your senses (sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste) - making sure that your feet are fully touching the ground. Then in your mind name five objects that you can see in the room. Be sure these are real rather than imaginary objects. Next, in your mind identify five sounds you hear. Make sure that these are not conversations in the room; instead, try to focus on sounds such as a sound of tapping a pen, a car passing by, squeaking chair, or your own words, etc. Now identify 5 things you can sense of feels such as your breath moving in and out, the feelings of your legs/ hands/ bottom (if you're sitting), or the sensation of the warmth in the room. If you still feel overwhelmed start from the beginning with naming 4, 3, 2, 1 things using your senses. Practice this exercise anytime, even when you do not feel upset. This will help you to teach your nervous system to respond better in the moments of high distress.
It is important to recognize what your triggers are. They can range from the anniversary of the event, a song, a person, a smell or a word. It can be anything that can trigger sensations of the original trauma prompting your body and mind to relive it. When you experience a trigger, you will start feeling as if you are in danger – it is a natural response of your body and mind in the moment of threat. When you are not in real danger, know that your body and mind react this way as it remembers the ordeal. It is an automatic response to all those cues around you that your body is picking up through your senses. However, if you are really in danger, then your natural reaction will be to get yourself out of the situation. Do that. Keep yourself safe. Call for help. If you are in a position that is not life-threatening but you still experience triggers as if you were reliving the traumatic event, then the best thing is to acknowledge that these are triggers and try to soothe yourself.
Be Kind to Yourself
Remember that holidays are stressful for everyone, even those who did not experience emotional trauma or who have fully recovered. Yes, it’s possible to heal from past hurts and injury with the right help. Yes, you are likely to feel angry with someone, have arguments, make mistakes or have impatient days. If you stumble or even fall apart, its ok. Recovery is difficult but not impossible. If you are having feelings that seem too overwhelming to cope with, reach out for help to others, call 911 or go to the closest ER – take control of your reactions to triggers and keep yourself safe, because you are worth it. Remember that life is a process and emotions are changeable and that every year is different. If something goes wrong, be kind to yourself and remind yourself that in the present moment it is you who needs comfort the most. Be sensitive and gentle to yourself. Breath. Take control. Make choices and boundaries. If you are a survivor of any traumatic ordeal and you feel that you can't move past your invisible wounds, reach out for help to a professional specializing in trauma recovery.
And remember, you have the right to maintain your peace after the holidays!