Trauma and the Holidays: 3 Practices to Reclaim Joy

The holidays can be tough for people who have lived through trauma. The holidays come with so many reminders, so many triggers. You can start your day in an Ok mood and then suddenly Nat King Cole is singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” on the radio and you are catapulted onto the way-back-machine.  Or the smells of baking, or the sights of lights, or the stress and pressure of trying to get everything done or make everyone happy.

The very nature of any holiday is the strong connection to ritual and tradition—to connect the past to the present and have a bridge to the future—all through the repetition of the things we do, what we eat, the songs we sing, the way we spend our days. If our holidays were happy ones, we can instantly tap into that happiness from the past and draw on it like a deep well. But if holidays were deeply unhappy, violent, or grim—then the reminders can bring us right back—even if our current situation is more peaceful. The power of holiday and tradition—to create a time-warp event of ‘once upon a time’ can mean that at the holidays—it can feel impossible to unhook from past traumas even if they have receded at other times of the year.

Essentially, the way to heal the holidays is to create new connections in the brain and body. Your brain has some very well worn paths and connections and what you need are some new connections and, frankly, some new unrelated memories.  Here are some practices to jostle the old connections, make some new ones and stretch into new memories. Not only can you survive the holidays, you might even heal stronger through them.

1.     Create a new tradition. A brand new tradition. Something that you can connect to and doesn’t connect to your past—or if it does, it just taps in to something positive. In my 20’s I started baking Christmas cookies with my best friend in the tiniest of apartment kitchens with a loaned Spritz cookie press from my 80 year old landlady. Twenty-five years later, we are still making our cookies. Those cookies were such a wonderful handhold into a new future of holidays. They gave me a way to connect to Christmas, and through giving them away, connect to other people. But there are so many ways to create new traditions. I have had clients who joined choirs, or started their town’s Luminaria event. Sometimes doing something for someone else made someone feel better, like the woman who started a Toy drive for a hospital. And sometimes it didn’t even seem related to Christmas—one client created a tradition of a movie marathon with her family—each year they picked a different theme—Star Wars, or James Bond—and played with the theme as much as they could. Be creative! New traditions help you tap into a new joy and they give you something to look forward to.

2.     Be Mindful of living in both past and present. In a previous post on Holidays and Trauma I referred to it as holding both. Stop expecting yourself to ‘get over it’ and just let yourself live in it as best you can. Mindfulness is the best antidote to abandoning yourself. If you can stay mindful and actually stay with yourself, you paradoxically are creating a new experience for old memories. Trauma is about feeling helpless. Mindfulness is about being able to stay with whatever comes up—so in that moment you are not helpless, you are making a conscious choice to stay. It is powerful medicine against helplessness. When you feel yourself getting triggered by the past, take a deep breath and look around. What can connect you to the present? What can you take in and see as beautiful, as peaceful and joyful? It doesn’t have to be big. It can be the way the rain is sparkling. It can be the cat sleeping. Any image or sound that helps your brain feel joy or peace in that moment will do. Maybe it’s noticing something you are grateful for. Whatever the new, positive thought is, it will interfere in the old connections between the old trauma and the trigger—it will build more muscles in connecting to the world you are living in now.

3.     Take a break. Remembering that trauma is connected to the feelings of terror and helplessness, it is so important to remind yourself that the trauma is over, you survived it, and it is the present: you are no longer subject to living in a terrifying or helpless situation. The problem with trauma is that it can create that old experience in the present in your body and brain—it’s what I call an emotional flashback. I sometimes describe it as the feeling of feeling like you are drowning in a pool—thrashing around wildly—only you have forgotten that the water is only 3 feet deep. You can actually put your feet down and stand up. So in the midst of holiday trauma triggers—help yourself remember that it is the present by letting yourself take breaks: Just walk outside for a moment and take a deep breath of air. Or, listen to music that doesn’t remind you of the holidays, or read a book about something entirely different. Distract yourself with a stupid old TV show for an hour. Fix that shelf or replace the batteries in your household appliances. Change the conversation to something that helps you connect to your self in a way that helps you feel grounded. And if you are worried about what people will think if you need to leave the conversation --offer to wash the dishes or walk the dog, or read the kids bedtime stories—and they will be grateful. The main thing is that you stop the action for a moment and give yourself a break.