With Christmas approaching, many of us are preparing for the festive season with dinner plans, shopping for gifts, and decorating our homes. The holiday season is a time for fun and festive cheer for many, but it can be one of the most challenging times of the year for others. In this blog, we explore how Christmas can be emotionally and mentally challenging for so many of us, particularly trauma survivors. Despite its challenges, Christmas can be made easier for everyone when we take a little time to understand the impact of trauma on enjoying the holidays and how to make it easier and more enjoyable for yourself and those you love who may be experiencing difficulty.
The build-up to the holiday season can be stressful for anyone. For those already suffering from feelings of depression, anxiety, stress, and other trauma-related symptoms, the months before Christmas can exacerbate these feelings and awaken or provoke an underlying sense of isolation, loneliness, and a perceived lack of fulfilment. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 64 percent of individuals suffering from mental health condition report that their conditions worsen over the holidays.
Traumatic memories of past holiday seasons can resurface around Christmas time. For some, these traumatic memories might still be subconscious, but can nonetheless evoke anxious or depressive patterns of thinking and behaviour, and may cause us to re-experience our traumas or fall back into unhealthy coping behaviours, such as substance misuse or disordered eating. Stress is well-known to exacerbate underlying mental health issues, and is also a common feature of the holidays, making Christmas a vulnerable time of year for many.
If you have been through a holiday season-related trauma, the excess sensory stimuli in the environment, such as scents, bright colours, flashing lights, Christmas music, alcohol, and food can be triggering. Many people may consciously or subconsciously get triggered and experience the onset of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, or other mental and behavioural health issues, not helped by the change in weather and the pervasive theme of festive cheers everywhere we go.
Tips for a Trauma-Informed Christmas
Let go of the idea of a ‘perfect Christmas’.
Try not to get caught up in the idea of having a perfect Christmas; one without any difficulties, stress, and frustration. Clinging to such a concept makes us forget that we are human and that life is rarely, if ever, perfect. Trying too hard is sure to lead to more frustration and irritation than necessary. Suppose we don’t allow ourselves to relax a little bit and worry less about getting everything just right. In that case, we create more stress for ourselves and the rest of the family, even for the children, and especially for those in the family suffering from unresolved trauma. The enormous pressure that we so often place on ourselves around the holiday season is unnecessary and makes it difficult to enjoy this time of year. Let go of trying to achieve perfection and be mindful of personal limits and boundaries; don’t push people to do things they don’t want to do.
Be Gentle with Yourself
If you are in recovery from trauma, it is essential to be gentle with yourself and not push yourself to engage in any activities that you believe might trigger an unhealthy reaction. If you are in recovery from substance abuse, Christmas can be particularly challenging as those around you are more likely to drink more than usual, which can cause temptation. Allow yourself to leave a gathering or event if you are worried about a relapse. There is no pressure to do anything you don’t want to do. You can make this easier for yourself by outlining a plan of action to leave in case you feel stressed or triggered. Try to avoid going to gatherings of events from which you have no easy opportunity to leave. Consider going with a sober companion or with a group that understands and supports your recovery.
Consider the Roots of Holiday Stress
With greater stress often comes feelings of anger, frustration, and unrealistic demands and expectations of ourselves and others. When things don’t fit in with the ideal, Hollywood Christmas featuring only smiles, joy, and laughter that we had in mind, people are sure to be disappointed. Christmas can be a stressful time for adults and for children who experience this these memories can become ingrained in the child’s mind and resurface over the holidays in later years. As Christmas approaches, these stressed children, now stressed adults, can feel as though there is no other way for Christmas to be and pass their stress on to their children in a vicious cycle. This is not uncommon. Many of us fall into the trap of thinking that Christmas is supposed to be perfect, and as a result, we feel pressure to try to control everything. This usually leads to disappointment, and a problematic Christmas becomes a self-fulfilled prophecy.
Avoid perpetuating the cycle of stress and trauma by being mindful of the family’s youngest. Children are vulnerable to traumatic stress at any point in their lives. Arguments among adults with harsh words, slurs, and ultimatums may soon be forgotten by the adults themselves. Still, children can be like sponges to such confrontation and internalise the experience, unsure of exactly how to process and let go of it. As a result, they may carry such experiences into adult life and may not even be consciously aware of why they feel such a significant increase in their stress levels.
Christmas can be a time of love and connection to others, but this type of Christmas is hard to achieve when those around us are not being heard, validated, and respected for their personal thoughts and feelings. Undoubtedly, there is pressure to be happy over the holidays, but this is by no means a rule. Instead of pressuring yourself or others to be merry and festive Christmas, consider the above tips and advice and keep your Christmas trauma-informed. The healing process begins and is felt when we feel heard. We can offer some compassion to ourselves and those around us this holiday season by hearing people, not just verbally but physically and emotionally.
At Khiron, we understand that Christmas can bring up complicated feelings such as isolation, loneliness, guilt, shame, and despair. We urge anyone who feels that this Christmas will be particularly difficult for themselves or a loved one to seek professional help if needed. As trauma-informed as you might be, trauma is very complex and can be safely managed under the support and guidance of a trained therapist or counsellor.
If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling to heal from psychological trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 “Mental Health And The Holiday Blues | NAMI: National Alliance On Mental Illness”. Nami.Org, 2014, https://www.nami.org/Press-Media/Press-Releases/2014/Mental-health-and-the-holiday-blues. Accessed 29 Nov 2020.
 Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
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